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Fostering Inclusivity in the Digital Era: Two Priorities for the UN’s New Global Digital Compact


In recent years, the world has been witness to a troubling surge in polarization, geopolitical tensions, and growing inequalities, alongside a serious implementation gap in the shared promise of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and a concerning rise in human rights violations. Despite this discouraging backdrop, the international community has a transformative opportunity to craft a solution-oriented, cost-effective, and impactful tool capable of addressing many of these challenges.

The ongoing negotiations of the Global Digital Compact (GDC) at the United Nations (UN) in New York, under the leadership of Sweden and Zambia, presents member states with a unique opportunity  to deliver tangible change in people’s lives by closing the digital divides. The GDC also holds the promise of ensuring a safer future for all by addressing fragmentation and critical gaps in the global governance of the digital space, including on AI and other emerging technologies.

Key areas for member state consideration during the Digital Global Compact negotiations

Closing the digital divides and accelerating 2030 Agenda implementation

At its core, the GDC could fulfill the long-standing promise of closing the digital divides, which is no longer solely a matter of sustainable development but has become a moral imperative. By designing a Digital Compact with ambitious actionable commitments, clearly defined timelines, and robust monitoring mechanisms, we can pave the way for a future where everyone has the opportunity to harness the benefits of the digital revolution.

By agreeing on bold, meaningful and measurable actions aimed at advancing sustainable development in key areas, like gender equality, and addressing complex global challenges, such as climate change, diplomats in New York can deliver solutions to some of the current urgent challenges faced by countries across all regions and levels of development.

Indeed, the GDC can significantly accelerate the implementation of the 2030 Agenda, particularly in reducing inequality and exclusion and fostering peaceful, just and equal societies. To achieve this, the Digital Compact must prioritize solutions that improve connectivity in every country, as highlighted in the policy brief by Laura E. Bailey and Nanjala Nyabola. Additionally, by fostering digital literacy across all demographics, the GDC can contribute to social cohesion—particularly in addressing polarization and the erosion of democracy. Strengthening the protection of human rights online and combating harmful behaviors through effective regulations and policies, should also be a core deliverable of the GDC.

Enhancing global governance

A robust Digital Compact must guarantee meaningful support for developing countries in implementing the commitments and ensuring a inclusive follow-up process by establishing capacity-building mechanisms and granting developing countries a meaningful voice in all discussions related to the use and regulation of digital technologies. Any follow-up mechanism to be included in the GDC must be rooted in the universality and political engagement that only the UN General Assembly can provide.

As emphasized in the UN secretary-general’s policy brief for the GDC, the current global governance structure is extremely fragmented. With almost thirty UN-related bodies, conferences, and fora dealing with digital issues, alongside numerous other international and regional intergovernmental platforms, there is a compelling case for avoiding duplication in the new Digital Compact, while enhancing coordination and cooperation among existing UN organs.

Failure to address this fragmentation and multiplicity of spaces risks further marginalizing the Global South’s voices in digital discussions, including those from governments, civil society, academia, and private sector. Without a GDC that includes an explicit mandate to enhance the coordination, agenda setting, and collaboration among existing platforms, we will not be able to address “the fragmented and irregular policy discussions that have characterized digital coordination to date,” as diagnosed by the secretary-general in his policy brief.

Importantly, there seems to be a unique window of opportunity and a significant display of political will to improve international cooperation, partnerships and global governance in this regard. Companies such as Microsoft, Google, and Meta have publicly called for clearer rules, more harmonization, and common standards in the digital space. This sentiment has been echoed by governments dominant in the digital arena with varying tones: from the United States strongly advocating for a follow-up mechanism that focuses on respecting existing mandates, to a recognition by China of the leading role of the United Nations in global digital governance and rules-making. The recent adoption, by consensus, of the first ever United Nations General Assembly resolution on AI instills hope that governments could be progressing towards a positive outcome in the GDC.

In fact, the success of the Digital Compact hinges upon agreeing on ambitious actionable commitments and the design of a robust follow-up review mechanism with a mandate to enhance coordination, governance and inclusivity. These efforts must be at the forefront of the diplomatic negotiations in the next few months.

The UN’s quest for digital governance is not just about regulating technology; it’s about shaping a future where digital advancements serve humanity rather than dictate its destiny.

How we got here: Background on the Global Digital Compact and its current progress

The origins of the GDC can be traced back to the Declaration on the Commemoration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the United Nations, where member states committed to improving digital cooperation and recognized the transformative yet challenging nature of digital technologies. In the declaration, leaders acknowledged that “the improper use of digital tools can have far-reaching consequences,” from fueling divisions to exacerbating inequalities.

In response to this commitment, the UN secretary-general proposed the creation of a “Global Digital Compact” in his report “Our Common Agenda” which outlines shared principles for an open, free, and secure digital future; “reclaiming the digital commons;” and addressing complex issues such as connectivity, fragmentation of the Internet, data protection, human rights online, and artificial intelligence.

To advance this initiative, the President of the General Assembly convened a series of open, inclusive, and informal thematic consultations in early 2022. It became apparent during these discussions that many Permanent Missions in New York lacked the necessary expertise to engage in complex digital negotiations, while still reiterating their interest in developing a compact. Consequently, the President appointed the Ambassadors of Rwanda and Sweden to organize broad cross-regional multistakeholder consultations, focusing on identifying priorities, commonalities and challenges in preparing the GDC, while creating essential capacity-building, in particular for developing countries.

After over a year of informal consultations, discussions and engagements, the Permanent Representatives of Sweden and Zambia were tasked by the President of the General Assembly at the end of 2023, to lead on the intergovernmental negotiations to shape up the GDC, with the aim of adopting it during the Summit of the Future in September 2024.

As delegations prepare for intense negotiations in New York this month, following the publication of the zero draft, it is crucial to reaffirm the fundamental objectives driving this endeavor: harnessing the potential of existing technologies to implement the SDGs, upholding human rights, fostering peace and security for all, and strengthening global governance mechanisms and regulations to address fragmentation and gaps in the digital sphere. Bridging the digital divide is essential to ensuring an inclusive and sustainable future, but coordinated global governance of the digital space is crucial for harnessing the transformative power of new technologies while mitigating their potential risks.

Photo: ©Adobe Stock/flashmovie

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