These are hard times for global cooperation.
Many of the hopes for global partnership on sustainable development or international security that were common in the 1990s and 2000s have faded. COVID’s brought renewed vigour in some areas, but the world community has struggled to energise joint action against climate change.
Economic globalisation’s been accompanied by jostling great powers and growing competition in geopolitics. War in Ukraine’s a reminder – as are conflicts elsewhere – of the weakness of global cooperation and of the role that it could play in preventing conflict and countering existential threats.
So where in this lies digital cooperation? There’s been a deal of talk of this in UN circles. A word on where that’s at; some opportunities and threats; some thoughts on possible ways forward.
Global and digital cooperation
The UN Secretary-General’s on a mission to "rebuild global solidarity" and build "a stronger, more networked and inclusive" system of international governance – across the board. His goals for this – in security and the environment, for sustainable development and shared prosperity – are set out in a manifesto he published last year which he called Our Common Agenda.
Digital cooperation’s a part of it. The Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on that theme reported in 2019, and he responded a year later with his Roadmap for Digital Cooperation. Both recognised the central importance of digital development across all aspects of the UN’s and the international community’s agenda.
The Roadmap makes clear this is a two-way street. "Digital technology does not exist in a vacuum," the Secretary-General wrote. It’s influenced by other major themes (economic and political, social and environmental, concerned with rights and with security) as much as influencing their trajectory.
This is, he says, "a critical inflection point" for technology governance, requiring the world community to "redouble efforts to better harness the potential of digital technologies while mitigating the harm that they may cause". This is not cheerleading for digital technology, but an attempt to ensure that it is managed for the public good, and helps address our crises of the moment and the future.
A common agenda?
The Common Agenda puts this in that wider context. It’s a plea and a proposal to drag the world back towards the kind of cooperation the UN aspired to build when it was first established in the 1940s.
The Agenda’s built round 12 "commitments". These echo those in the Sustainable Development Goals that were agreed in 2015 and have been knocked off course by COVID: goals like security and conflict resolution, gender equality and social inclusion, environmental sustainability, the rule of law and the power of human rights.
It proposes a Summit of the Future, in 2023, "to forge a new global consensus on what our future should look like, and what we can do today to secure it". Good governance and international cooperation matter for this.
A digital compact?
Digital technology has an important part to play in this, as a general-purpose technology that underpins and impacts goals across the board, potentially for good or ill. And – says the Secretary-General – digital cooperation will be crucial if that technology’s to focus on the public good and ensure that "the potential harms of the digital domain" don’t "risk overshadowing its benefits".
Digital governance, he notes, "has not kept pace with the inherently informal and decentralized nature of the Internet, which is dominated by commercial interests". There are urgent ethical, social and regulatory questions concerned with both present and future technologies that need to be addressed.
To do so he proposes that the UN, governments, businesses and civil society work together to agree on a ‘Global Digital Compact’ that can be put to the Summit of the Future. Details aren’t given as to how this might be organised, but the aim would be to "outline shared principles for an open, free and secure digital future for all".
There’s a relatively short time for such a Compact to be put together if it’s to precede the Summit. Issues are complex and it’s never easy to agree on "shared principles" in international discourse.
This year’s Internet Governance Forum, it has already been agreed, will focus on five themes suggested for the Compact: connectivity and human rights; internet interoperability or fragmentation; data governance and privacy; security, safety and accountability; and advanced technologies including artificial intelligence. The idea’s to make a contribution to the Compact. It’s unclear if other digital discussion fora are going to follow suit.
The Summit of the Future
There is, of course, no guarantee of outcomes here.
The Secretary-General’s overarching goal’s ambitious: revitalising the UN and the global solidarity it was designed to represent. It builds upon the UN Charter and other building blocks of multilateralism (intergovernmental partnership). It sits alongside other overarching goals including the SDGs and work to combat climate change. It reiterates norms of international law and human rights, and its process more than nods to multistakeholder participation of the kind that’s common in the digital world (less so elsewhere).
The goals set out in the Common Agenda are individually widely supported, but their summation in a new global agenda has not been universally endorsed. UN summits are contested spaces in which negotiations lead – usually, sometimes traumatically – to consensus texts. Sometimes big challenges are faced, sometimes they’re parked. Sometimes summits make a big difference to what follows, sometimes not.
Building an actual common agenda from the proposals in Our Common Agenda, in short, will not be easy. The Summit of the Future faces two especial challenges:
It’s trying to bring together in one plan issues that have proved intractable in other fora. Look, for instance, at the difficulties there have been in getting international agreement on tackling climate change.
And it’s doing so at a time when multilateral cooperation has been weakening, and fast. Today’s geopolitical environment is much more (and more aggressively) contested than was the case two decades back.
Revitalising global cooperation, at a time of crisis and with limited resources, is, in other words, highly desirable, but it will be very far from easy and success is far from certain.
And the Digital Compact?
The digital component, too, will not be easy. Digital cooperation is desirable but success is far from certain.
The Compact’s stated aim is for "shared principles". The need for these is widely shared but there’s much less agreement about what they ought to be or, indeed, about the process for achieving them.
Many talks in many places
Many discussions and negotiations are underway today, in many different places, about different aspects of the digital society and global governance. The issues that they’re dealing with are highly complex, and negotiations difficult – as this summary of what’s afoot today makes clear. The Compact will inevitably cut across them.
Even the process of agreement’s problematic. That for developing the Compact isn’t clear as yet. The Secretary-General’s keen to build relationships between multilateral and multistakeholder engagement, but not all governments are all that keen on multistakeholder engagement. Geopolitics tends to get in the way. The role and influence of global corporations are uncertain.
The time for reaching an agreement, too, is short. The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) had a complex preparatory process, lasting years, with iterations of discussion at national, regional and global levels.
The IGF’s agreed to focus on the Compact this year because it will be meeting only once before the Secretary-General’s deadline for a Compact and a Summit. It’s chosen to put the Compact at the heart of its agenda, but that may be less likely where other digital discussion fora are concerned.
Principles and practice
Principles can be as hard to reach as agreements about details, even more so if there are ideological differences at hand. Principles with substance can have profound impacts on governance (see, for instance, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), but the need for compromise can also make them ambiguous or bland.
The outcome documents from WSIS – its Geneva Declaration of Principles and Tunis Agenda – are treated now with reverence but they were both last-minute compromises reached through tortuous negotiations, with some issues unresolved.
The pace of change in digital development is rapid; agreeing on principles that stand the test of time more difficult again. Those that make sense today may not make sense tomorrow when the parameters of digitalisation have been changed by innovation – as broadband, social media and cloud computing have altered them since WSIS; as artificial intelligence and quantum computing suggest they will be revolutionised in future.
What’s to be done?
None of which is intended to suggest that the digital cooperation agenda and the Compact aren’t important. On the contrary.
Enough has happened since WSIS to make clear that digital development is crucially important to all aspects of international policy. In the Secretary-General’s words, "a global public good that should benefit everyone, everywhere" is not doing so; indeed, he says, "currently the potential harms of the digital domain risk overshadowing its benefits."
The Compact’s an opportunity to grasp that nettle and, incidentally, prepare the ground for the UN’s overall review of WSIS and its outcomes that’s scheduled for 2025.
Making this work, I would suggest, is going to require three things.
First, the will to commit time and resources to thinking through the implications. Time is short before the Compact’s due. Anyone that’s serious about trying to influence that Compact and giving it significance needs to be working on that thinking now.
That’s true of all stakeholders: international agencies and governments, businesses and civil society organisations. The right time for them to work out what they want is well before they have to reach a deal. I don’t see enough of that underway to date.
Second, the will to recognise that digital development (to reiterate the S-G’s words) "does not exist in a vacuum". What ought to matter’s not what’s best for the internet (for instance) but how digitalisation can serve the global goals the international community’s agreed on (such as the SDGs and human rights, or indeed the UN Charter).
Digital insiders often complain that governments don’t understand digital technology, but the same’s true in reverse: digital insiders often don’t understand what governance entails. More dialogue across that digital divide’s essential.
And third, the will to think radically. Digitalisation is often called and often is ‘transformative’. Transformation alters parameters and options, and it alters opportunities and risks. It requires the will to rethink how things are and how they might be. That’s as true of thinking about digital governance as it is of any other kind of governance. It means more looking to the future than the past.
Image: UN Secretary-General António Guterres looking at the tapestry replica of Picasso's "Guernica". UN Photo/Mark Garten.