An 18th SDG – The High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation Publishes its Final Report
In July 2018, the Secretary General appointed a High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation, tasking it to identify policy, research and information gaps related to the use and impact of digital technologies and to make proposals to strengthen international cooperation in the digital space, thereby contributing to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The panel, comprising government officials and representatives from business, civil society and academia, issued its final report last June.
The sustainable development debate revisited
As a reminder, the Sustainable Development Goals are a set of 17 objectives adopted by the UN member states in 2015, representing an agenda to ensure a sustainable future for mankind by 2030; they span from eradicating poverty through climate action to inclusive economic and social development.
The present report, titled “The Age of Digital Interdependence”, sets out by recalling the ambivalent nature of technologies that bring great benefits and at the same time create major divides in the population. Digital cooperation is understood as the mechanisms of “working together to address the societal, ethical, legal and economic impacts of digital technologies in order to maximise benefits to society and minimise harms”. If the SDGs are to be achieved by the set date, digital cooperation, encompassing nowadays hundreds of mechanisms, needs to be improved. With that in mind, the report describes various issues pertaining to economy, social development and governance, assesses the contribution of digital technologies to the SDGs and concludes by proposing three models of digital cooperation mechanisms to be considered in future debates. Based on the analysis, the report formulates a set of recommendations for the Secretary-General in five areas: inclusiveness, capacity-building, human rights, digital trust and security, and global digital cooperation. To achieve its purpose, the report calls upon stakeholders to adopt, in 2020, on the occasion of the 75th session of the General Assembly, a “Global Commitment for Digital Cooperation”.
Many of the issues covered in the report come as little surprise, such as inclusive economies, gender inequalities or education reform. Other topics are more controversial and ambitious, such as pooling data sets and creating a platform for sharing digital public goods, or the suggestion for a set of metrics for digital inclusiveness: these would be agreed, measured worldwide and detailed with sex-disaggregated data in the annual reports of major multilateral institutions, in order to inform strategies and plans of action. Other such proposals include regional and global helpdesks that should address the general lack of human and institutional capacity in digital affairs, or a comprehensive review of existing human rights mechanisms from the digital perspective, underlining the fact that the digital domain impacts on more human rights and freedoms than the right to privacy and freedom of expression. Adding to the ongoing international discussion on the matter (cf. the European Commission’s ethics guidelines on AI or the Council of Europe Guidelines on AI and Data Protection), the panel takes a unusually clear stance on the issue of responsibility for artificial intelligence, which must, in the panel’s view, remain with humans.
New models of stewardship
Of all the suggestions made in the report, the three proposed models of digital cooperation can be considered to have the greatest potential for further discussion. In short, they are: 1) “IGF+” or expanding the existing multi stakeholder Internet Governance Forum within the UN and addressing its shortcomings with new tools and issue-centred cooperation; 2) “distributed co-governance”, based on a horizontal mechanism of networks responsible for issue-specific collaboration on the design of norms and policies that could be picked up by governments for implementation and enforcement; and 3) “digital commons”, inspired by the common heritage principle and comprising specific multi-stakeholder issue-specific tracks that would be led by a designated organisation. Understandably, the proposed models are also the report’s most sensitive point.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose?
It is fair to ask whether the report is capable of bringing about a change, or whether its authors will join the ranks of other eminent high-level panels that sank into oblivion having failed to make a case.
Aware of the multi-stakeholder ethos in the current governance debate, the panel strives to recommend models avoiding centralised governance. Nevertheless, all three models assume the state and institutional authority, with the UN in the first place, as a convener. It may therefore be hard for the rest of the stakeholders to buy into what they may perceive as yet another top-down model, far from the governance model once envisaged by John P. Barlow, whose Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace the present report clearly alludes to. Moreover, some stakeholders such as the EU or the International Chamber of Commerce have already reiterated their support for the IGF process, leaving seemingly little space for further discussion. The report also remains very vague on the financing of the new models, which could further hamper their reception.
Regrettably, too, the report devotes limited space to discussion of norms of behaviour in cyberspace. Following the inconclusive ending of the 2016/2017 UN Group of Governmental Experts on Developments in the Field of Information and Technologies in the Context of International Security, the report would have been an opportunity to pick up the momentum on the eve of the two new working bodies established in December 2018 starting work to continue the process.
Finally, the report can and will be criticised for remaining silent on politics and not acknowledging the existing differences between states in their approaches to digital technologies and the governance of cyberspace. Instead, it refers to shared values such as inclusiveness, respect and human-centredness, human rights, international law, transparency and sustainability, although many of those have different meanings in different parts of the world.
The above divergence of views possibly also reflects in the fact that the panel members, by their own admission, have been unable to reach consensus on individual recommendations and may have at times remained too prudent and compromising in order not to offend anybody. The report can only be as authoritative as its authors, and high-level panels meet with a varying degree of success. It will therefore be largely up to the Secretary General to keep the topic on the table and engage the member states as well as other stakeholders.
Nevertheless, in the light of the importance that digital technologies are gradually assuming in all areas of human activity, the fact that the international community has finally endowed itself with a “digital SDG” and set out principles of digital cooperation, deserves appreciation.
Author: Taťána Jančárková, NATO CCDCOE Law Branch
This publication does not necessarily reflect the policy or the opinion of the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence (the Centre) or NATO. The Centre may not be held responsible for any loss or harm arising from the use of information contained in this publication and is not responsible for the content of the external sources, including external websites referenced in this publication.