UN-appointed panel calls for global cooperation to ensure safe, ‘inclusive digital economy and society for all’
An expert panel convened by the UN has urged greater cooperation among governments, civil society and the private sector, saying that while the rise of digital technologies has resulted in “unprecedented advances,” it has also posed “profound new challenges” to people’s human rights.
Jack Ma, Melinda Gates, digital technologies, human rights, UN, The Age of Digital Interdependence, digital cooperation
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UN-appointed panel calls for global cooperation to ensure safe, ‘inclusive digital economy and society for all’

An expert panel convened by the UN has urged greater cooperation among governments, civil society and the private sector, saying that while the rise of digital technologies has resulted in “unprecedented advances,” it has also posed “profound new challenges” to people’s human rights.

The 20-person panel– co-chaired by American philanthropist Melinda Gates and Chinese e-commerce magnate Jack Ma – noted that growing opportunities created by the use of digital technologies “are paralleled by stark abuses and unintended consequences.”

New forms of “digital cooperation” are needed to ensure that digital technologies are “built on a foundation of respect for human rights and provide meaningful opportunity for all people and nations,” said the panel in its report, The Age of Digital Interdependence, released June 20. “We cannot afford to wait any longer to develop better ways to cooperate, collaborate and reach consensus.”

It also asked that UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who appointed the panel in July 2018, to facilitate, as a matter of urgency, “an agile and open consultation process” to develop mechanisms for global digital cooperation.

The panel also said there is an urgent need to lay the foundations of “an inclusive digital economy and society for all.” Policies and investments must “enable people to use technology to build better lives and a more peaceful, trusting world,” it stressed.

Human rights impact

In view of growing threats to human rights and safety posed by social media, the panel called on social media enterprises to work with governments, international and local civil society organizations and human rights experts around the world “to fully understand and respond to concerns about existing or potential human rights violations.”

Companies have often reacted “slowly and inadequately” to complaints and reports that their technologies are being used in ways that undermine human rights, the report said. “We need more forward-looking efforts to identify and mitigate risks in advance: companies should consult with governments, civil society and academia to assess the potential human rights impact of the digital technologies they are developing.” It added: “From risk assessment to ongoing due diligence and responsiveness to sudden events, it should be clarified what society can reasonably expect from each stakeholder, including technology firms.”

There was consensus among members of the panel that social media companies “need to do more to prevent the dissemination of hatred and incitement of violence, and companies providing online services and apps used by children need to do more to ensure appropriate design and meaningful data consent,” the report said.

The report underscored the fact that universal human rights apply equally online as offline. “There is an urgent need to examine how time-honoured human rights frameworks and conventions should guide digital cooperation and digital technology,” the panel said. “We need society-wide conversations about the boundaries, norms and shared aspirations for the uses of digital technologies, including complicated issues like privacy, human agency and security in order to achieve inclusive and equitable outcomes.”

Discussions also need to take place on the right to privacy, the need for clear human accountability for autonomous systems, and for strengthening efforts to develop and implement global norms on cybersecurity, the panel said.

The report discussed the ways digital technologies have improved people’s lives and its potential in helping achieve the flagship goal of the SDGs – to end extreme poverty by 2030.  It cited how digital technologies have “revolutionized the ability to communicate with others and to share access and knowledge,” and how people from long-neglected populations have used mobile money and other financial services for the first time, and started businesses that reach both domestic and global markets.”

At the same time, more and more people are “increasingly—and rightly— worried that our growing reliance on digital technologies has created new ways for individuals, companies and governments to intentionally cause harm or to act irresponsibly,” the report said. “Virtually every day brings new stories about hatred being spread on social media, invasion of privacy by businesses and governments, cyber-attacks using weaponised digital technologies or states violating the rights of political opponents.”

Consensus is also emerging that much more needs to be done to safeguard people’s right to privacy, the report said. “Individuals often have little or no meaningful understanding of the implications of providing their personal data in return for digital services.”
Companies, governments and civil society must agree “to clear and transparent standards that will enable greater interoperability of data in ways that protect privacy while enabling data to flow for commercial, research and government purposes, and supporting innovation to achieve the SDGs.”

These standards must prevent data collection beyond intended use, limit re-identification of individuals via data sets, and provide individuals “meaningful control over how their personal data is shared.”

Reacting to the findings of the report, WACC General Secretary Philip Lee said, “individually, these challenges are not new, but their pace and interconnection in the digital age pose huge and complex obstacles to people and communities seeking to participate fully and equally as responsible citizens in democratic societies.”

He added that while government action is needed,  “it must be informed and supported by civil society and based on a strong foundation of human rights, social justice and democratic principles. To counter and control the digital transformation of societies requires an equally transformative movement of people. “

‘Digital cooperation’

The panel was asked to consider question of “digital cooperation” –- defined as ways “to address the social, ethical, legal and economic impact of digital technologies to maximize their benefits and minimize their harm.”

It was asked to look at how digital cooperation can contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and to consider models of digital cooperation “to advance the debate surrounding governance in the digital sphere.”

Digital cooperation, the panel, said, must be grounded in the principles of inclusiveness, respect, human-centeredness, human rights, international law, transparency and sustainability.

For it to be effective, it must be multi-lateral and multi-stakeholder – involving not only governments, but a diverse spectrum of civil society, academics, technologists and traditionally marginalized groups such as women, youth, indigenous people, rural populations and older people.

The panel also argued that digital technologies will only advance towards the full sweep of the SDGs if goes more broadly than the issue of access to the Internet and digital technologies.”

There must be cooperation on “broader ecosystems that enable digital technologies to be used in an inclusive manner,” the report said. This will require policy frameworks that directly support economic and social inclusion, special efforts to bring traditionally marginalized groups to the fore, investments in both human capital and infrastructure, smart regulatory environments and significant efforts to assist workers facing disruption from technology’s impact on their livelihoods.

Many people continue to be left out of the benefits of digital technology, the report said. “Digital dividends coexist with digital divides. Well more than half the world’s population still either lacks affordable access to the Internet or is using only a fraction of its potential despite being connected.”

Those who lack safe and affordable access to digital technologies are overwhelmingly those from already marginalized sectors – women, elderly people and those with disabilities; Indigenous groups, and those who live in poor, remote or rural areas,” the report said.  This has reinforced many existing and widening inequalities – in wealth, opportunity, education, and health – it added.

The panel also recommended the following as priority actions:

  • By 2030, every adult should have affordable access to digital networks, as well as digitally-enabled financial and health services, as a means to make a substantial contribution to achieving the SDGs. Provision of services should guard against abuse by building on best practices, including the ability to opt in and opt out, and by encouraging informed public discourse.
  • The creation of a broad, multi-stake alliance, involving the UN, for sharing digital public goods, engaging talent and pooling data assets, “in a manner that respects privacy, in areas related to attaining the SDGs.”
  • The adoption by the private sector, civil society, national governments, multilateral banks and the UN of policies to support full digital inclusion and digital equality for women and marginalized groups.International bodies, such as the World Bank and the UN, should strengthen research and promote action on barriers women and marginalized groups face to digital inclusion and digital equality.
  • A set of metrics for digital inclusiveness should be urgently agreed, measured worldwide and detailed with sex disaggregated data.
  • The UN Secretary-General must institute an agencies-wide review of how existing international human rights accords and standards apply to new and emerging digital technologies. Civil society, governments and the private sector and the public should be invited to submit their views on how to apply existing human rights instruments in the digital age.
  • The development of a Global Commitment on Digital Trust and Security to shape a shared vision, identify attributes of digital stability and strengthen implementation of norms for responsible uses of technology and propose priorities for action.
  • That Autonomous intelligent systems be designed in ways that enable their decisions to be explained and humans to be accountable for their use. Audits and certification schemes should monitor compliance of AI systems with engineering and ethical standards, which should be developed using multi-stakeholder and multilateral approaches. Life and death situations should not be delegated to machines.


In the report’s foreword, Gates and Ma noted that “a digitally connected world can expand what is possible for everyone –including those who historically have been marginalized.” At the same time, however, these very same technologies “can be used to erode security and violate privacy.” They have also affected education systems and labour markets.

Still, Gates and Ma maintained, “the opportunities for human progress in the digital age ultimately outweigh the challenges – if we join together in the spirit of cooperation and inclusiveness.” — by Marites N. Sison


Photo above by Paul Jeffrey/ACT Alliance

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