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APC believes that “human rights need to be at the centre of the development, deployment, utilisation and regulation of the internet and digital technologies.” This is the central thread that cuts across our recommendations for the Global Digital Compact (GDC), a United Nations-led process currently developing a framework to “outline shared principles for an open, free and secure digital future for all.”

The GDC process, expected to culminate at the UN’s Summit of the Future in 2024, seeks to develop a common understanding of key digital principles by taking an inclusive approach to internet governance with inputs from all sectors of society. Envisaged as a high-level political document that reinforces multilateral cooperation built on “principles” and a “common vision”, the GDC will be negotiated through intergovernmental consensus. Though not a treaty, it aims to reinforce shared understanding of key digital principles such as inclusion, universal connectivity, avoiding internet fragmentation, providing people options on how their data is used, application of human rights online, accountability of the corporate sector, alignment of artificial intelligence with human values, keeping a safe and inclusive digital commons, and promoting a trustworthy internet by introducing accountability criteria for discrimination and misleading content.

Video: APC's executive director Chat Garcia Ramilo speaks about the GDC process.

Active participation of civil society is integral to ensuring that a long-term vision of a digital future centres human rights, social justice and sustainable development. It is a vital opportunity to respond to the evolving changes of our digital society and build on multistakeholder governance and policy work already undertaken through key processes like the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), as well as reinterpret the original digital vision set out at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). This means coming together and setting priorities for not only what we want the internet to be, but also influencing what we do not want it to be. “The GDC has the potential to frame digital debate at the global level in upcoming years,” we stated in our introductory brief to the GDC, “so it is urgent that the public has a seat at the table.”

APC network’s inputs to the Global Digital Compact

The APC network has been actively engaging in the GDC process by participating in numerous UN-led consultations, discussions and submissions. This work has been done through collaboration between APC and its members to present both context-specific cases from around the world, in particular ensuring representation of voices from the global South, as well as co-creating joint statements on thematic priorities such as meaningful connectivity and digital inclusion, an intersectional gender approach to access, people-centred cybersecurity and environmental protection.

So far APC’s main contribution has come in the form of its main Input to the Global Digital Compact, a consolidated set of recommendations with a focus on social, gender and environmental justice. “To overcome digital inclusion and achieve social justice, we must broaden the focus beyond access to connectivity infrastructure,” according to the input. We need to go further and “enable political, regulatory, technical, technological and financial conditions to increase individual and collective autonomy, agency and choice in how people connect to digital technology and spaces.”

The consolidated discussions of problem statements, core principles and key actions in the Input document are outlined across five themes of the GDC:

1. Connect all people to the internet, including all schools: A persistent lack of affordable meaningful access means people continue to be excluded from the social and economic benefits of the digital society and economy. Community capacity building, bottom-up participation, multistakeholder decision-making processes and the creation of enabling policies are essential to counter digital exclusion, especially in poor communities and rural areas, to foster the implementation of a rights-based, intersectional framework of standards, regulations and policies for meaningful access.

2. Protect data: Pushing back against surveillance capitalism and unfettered data collection is integral to respecting people’s right to protect their data. Strengthening oversight and accountability mechanisms and implementing privacy-by-default policies is key for curbing the exploitation of personal data for private or political purposes.

3. Apply human rights online: To ensure human autonomy, transparency and accountability, all aspects of the digital sphere must align with existing international human rights law. Adopting rights-based standards and strengthening multistakeholder participation is crucial to guaranteeing that all people have a say.

4. Accountability for discrimination and misleading content: Implementation and application of industry-wide standards need a massive overhaul to improve platform and government accountability and transparency. Content moderation must align with international human rights standards in support of an open, free and diverse internet that enables freedom of expression. This requires both research as well as multilateral discussion to outline practical steps to address the issue.

5. Environmental sustainability and digital technologies: The success or failure of mitigating the climate crisis will inevitably impact the implementation of the GDC. The process can meaningfully contribute to “greening” digital technologies – from design to production, assessment to policy – through shared responsibility across stakeholders, and therefore climate justice considerations must be at its core.

Engaging in the GDC as a network

The first of a series of thematic GDC deep dives focused on the topic of digital inclusion and connectivity, and brought together interventions from APC as well as members Derechos Digitales (Chile) and Colnodo (Colombia). The importance of community networks in connecting all people was a strong focus alongside recommendations for helping to bridge the digital divide.

The second GDC deep dive explored shared principles for internet governance based on accountability, inclusivity and sustainability. In addition to APC’s statement, the session also included interventions from members Digital Empowerment Foundation (India) and Derechos Digitales as well as APC associate AHM Bazlur Rahman (Bangladesh). The session included discussions on online safety and security in the face of rapid technological growth, and the roles and functions of multistakeholder forums.

Data protection was the focus of the third deep dive, wherein APC affirmed that “everyone has the right to the protection of the data that concerns them and to be able to understand, in very simple terms, how that data is processed,” and that furthermore “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference of this right.”

“The internet must be operated, governed and regulated on the foundations of international human rights standards and the rule of law,” APC stated in the fourth GDC deep dive session on human rights online. Derechos Digitales and AHM Bazlur Rahman also submitted statements exploring how digital rights can contribute to the protection of human rights while cautioning that without proper mechanisms to mitigate abuse, they can also lead to suppression or violation of human rights.

Most recently, artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies were the topic of focus in the fifth deep dive, drawing on the implications of AI systems for human rights, social justice and sustainable development while also calling for transparency and responsible disclosure around their operation.

These thematic deep dives will feed into a set of issue papers later this year and pave the way for the GDC document next year. Information on how to participate in upcoming deep dive sessions is outlined in the sections below.

Through this process, the APC network has been instrumental in convening participatory consultations, resulting in joint submissions on central topics. “As part of our commitment to the GDC process, APC engaged in consultations as a participant but also convened consultations within our networks to identify common ground and key messages relating to Earth justice and sustainable development, on one hand, and gender, on the other hand, for the GDC thematic areas,” explained Valeria Betancourt, manager of APC’s Communications and Information Policy Programme.

For the Earth justice submission, the engagement process included an online survey that invited the network to reflect on thematic priorities for the GDC and to share resources and recommendations for climate justice priorities. A virtual consultation further developed these inputs and led to small group discussions of “core principles and key commitments for climate and environmental justice in digital governance from the angles of human rights, data and artificial intelligence, and connectivity and digital inclusion,” according to Betancourt. Inputs for the gender submission stemmed from a meeting convened by APC at the 67th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York. APC facilitated the drafting of the inputs from different feminist organisations identifying ways to incorporate an intersectional gender approach to the GDC priority themes.

The collaborative spirit of the network was also highlighted in a recent joint letter addressing the urgent necessity of civil society participation in the GDC. It encouraged co-facilitators of the process to ensure that civil society participation is not minimalised, and that sessions dedicate adequate time and full transparency in selection of participants to include civil society representation. “At the end of the day, all such contributions, including the ones that emerge from global and regional consultations, will be taken into consideration for drafting the actual content of the GDC,” Betancourt said, emphasising the critical importance of civil society engagement.

Looking ahead at the GDC processes

The GDC process continues to move forward and there are ongoing opportunities for civil society groups to participate. There are two more thematic deep dives scheduled in the coming weeks: Global digital commons, and Accelerating progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), both on 14 June. For those who wish to get involved, there is information available on registering online.

The Secretary-General has recently published a policy brief on the GDC, which also presents a key opportunity for analysis by civil society groups. APC will be consulting with its networks and partners to prepare an analysis of this important document to bring civil society’s voice to this component of the process.

Participating in the deep dives is an impactful way for all civil society actors to bring their voices to the forefront and influence the development of the upcoming issue papers, which will be presented at a ministerial meeting in September. This meeting will be a crucial milestone in the GDC process. Betancourt concluded that “we expect that the ministerial meeting will establish mechanisms for meaningful participation of diverse, pluralistic and independent civil society organisations in the shaping of the GDC.”

More information on APC’s engagement in the GDC process and how to participate