The COVID-19 global pandemic has made digital tools indispensable. We work, learn, socialize, celebrate, and grieve virtually, and it is access to these technologies that has made it possible for many aspects of life to continue remotely, if in new forms. But the pandemic has also made life online more dangerous as cyberattacks of all stripes surge, as hackers “bomb” Zoom rooms, and as hate speech and misinformation flourish.
COVID-19 has magnified the critical role for digital technologies but also their underlying risks, and in doing so, made it clear that urgent work is needed to ensure that we can realize a future where new technologies can be harnessed to realize good and that we can work together to manage their risks.
Recently, the UN Foundation partnered with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to host a virtual discussion, featuring Fabrizio Hochschild, special adviser to the UN Secretary-General, on how the United Nations is working with others to help foster a safer and more equitable digital future.
Under-Secretary-General Hochschild explained how the UN Secretary-General’s new Roadmap for Digital Cooperation can help advance a positive digital future. The Roadmap, which was launched last month, builds on the work of the UN’s High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation, led by Melinda Gates and Jack Ma, and which delivered its final report last year. Since then, the UN has been working in partnership with countries, the private sector, civil society, research community, and others to identify how to realize the panel’s recommendations for what they called “the age of digital interdependence.”
The result of these efforts, the Roadmap is a call to:
CONNECT those who are not yet connected;
RESPECT human rights and human agency online; and
PROTECT those who are vulnerable to harms online.
Four points emerged from the wide-ranging discussion:
1. This is a challenge for today, not tomorrow
Technology is developing at breathtaking pace and changing the course of human history in the process. As Secretary-General António Guterres has noted, these advances are “unfolding at a speed with no parallel in human history.”
Indeed, the number of internet users in the world has grown fourfold over the past 15 years, in one of the fastest adoptions of new technologies ever. In the process, digital technologies have become important across nearly all aspects of society, and access to them has moved closer to a necessity than a luxury.
But even as digital technologies have become essential to much of daily life, our understanding of the implications of this shift has lagged in worrying ways. Because this not only enables a whole suite of economic, social, and political activities, it also unleashes risks capable of spreading at the speed of light. As technology writer Benedict Evans recently wrote, “When you connect all of society, you connect all of society’s problems as well. You connect all the bad people, and more importantly you connect all of our own worst instincts.”
And our ability to collectively make policy to help realize the greatest potential from new technologies, but also to manage their risks — including for the most vulnerable — is failing to keep pace with the dizzying speed of technological developments. It was precisely this gap, according to USG Hochschild, that prompted the UN Secretary-General to establish the High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation and subsequent work to realize its recommendations.
2. COVID-19 is raising the stakes
The COVID-19 pandemic has similarly left almost no facet of life untouched. Digital technologies have been crucial to maintaining employment, education, access to services, and more. But the pandemic has also highlighted the significant cost borne by those who do not have access to the internet, numbering nearly half of the world’s population.
Before 2020 these individuals were already most at risk of being left behind and were disproportionately women and those in the world’s poorest countries. Indeed, although nearly 90 percent of people living in developed countries are online, less than 20 percent of those in the world’s least developed countries are connected. But the costs of being offline have now surged to new heights as entire communities go without schooling, employment opportunities, and access to critical services. As the UN Secretary-General has warned, the digital divide is “threatening to become the new face of inequality.” That is why the Roadmap and the UN’s efforts focus first on rapidly accelerating efforts to bring the rest of the world online.
And those who are online now must navigate the surge of attacks and malicious behavior witnessed in the COVID-19 era from cyberattacks to hate speech to spiraling COVID-19-related misinformation that has reached “infodemic” proportions. Recently a video pushing false information on COVID-19 received 20 million views on Facebook in less than 24 hours. Moreover, governments around the world have used the pandemic to introduce invasive surveillance technologies that threaten the rights of citizens.
3. Geopolitical gridlock threatens a global fracture
At precisely the moment where the costs of a failure to cooperate are seen in stark relief, the world faces a level of polarization not seen in decades. And this political fragmentation, especially between great powers, is already easy to see online.
But we risk seeing further divisions in our digital world, or even a full fracture into separate but coexisting virtual worlds. Indeed, some argue that the “splinternet” is already here as some countries seek to exercise ever greater control of the internet within their borders, undermining the vision of the internet as a global network that would connect everyone in the world.
And it is also threatening alignment on a shared vision and blueprint for how the world can effectively cooperate in the digital world. Latha Reddy, former deputy national security adviser of India and co-chair of the Global Commission on the Stability of Cyberspace, acknowledged during the event that even if a global treaty was not possible given the geopolitical moment, the world should be able to agree on certain norms, including protecting health services and COVID-19 data in the midst of a global pandemic. And yet, the world is witnessing a spike in attacks on the very institutions working to develop a COVID-19 vaccine.
4. Decisions today will determine the future of our digital world
At this moment there is an urgent need for a shared understanding and vision, underpinned by common values. The global politics do not look promising.
But the world does have a set of common values and a foundation that were forged out of a period of tremendous human suffering, the first and second World Wars. From that dark period in human history came the UN Charter, which gave birth to the United Nations, and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Giving these values and commitments new life in the digital age will be critical. And as the UN is commemorating its 75th anniversary, heads of state will in September for the first time confirm the vital role for digital technologies and jointly affirm the priority of realizing a positive digital future.
We need to build on these areas of agreement to ensure that we are making decisions today to realize a safer, more equitable, and more rights-respecting digital world. As USG Hochschild implored during the discussion, “How we manage technology will be key in how we are remembered by those who come after us.” And this is a task that will require cooperation across all actors, countries, companies, civil society organizations, rights groups, research institutions, and others.
The Roadmap for Digital Cooperation is our starting point. The question is whether we can seize this moment, another unique one in human history, to build a safe and equitable digital world for all.