This article recaps the genesis and evolution of the Global Digital Compact, an ambitious initiative born out of the United Nations’ 75th anniversary declaration. Against the reality of escalating global tensions, the 2020 declaration emphasised the urgency of upholding the organisation’s founding principles. The proposed Compact represents a response to the challenges posed by digital technologies, which both offer immense opportunities and raise the stakes of responsible behaviour in cyberspace. Through multilateral collaboration and a shared understanding, stakeholders aim to optimize digital technology’s benefits while strengthening security. This article explores the Compact’s origins in the Secretary-General’s ‘Our Common Agenda’ report and summarises the discussions and consultations that have shaped the Compact’s development, with their emphasis on the importance of inclusive, multi-stakeholder participation. As negotiations approach, active involvement from Member States, particularly developing states, is now crucial to achieve a consensus-driven outcome. Key priorities, including connectivity, data governance, cybersecurity and the role of Artificial Intelligence are identified as focal points for the Compact’s success. The authors conclude with a call for unity and collaboration in navigating the complex arena of our common digital future.
In September 2020, the Member States of the UN marked the organisation’s 75th anniversary with a declaration recalling the organisation’s founding principles and reaffirming their importance amid escalating political tensions and heightened global challenges. In the few years since the UN75 Declaration, a number of international situations have deteriorated to levels not seen in decades, leading some to argue that the world is facing the highest political tensions since the Cold War.
The declaration reinforced the role of the multilateral system in the construction of a more equitable, resilient and sustainable world. It also outlined 12 specific shared objectives, including improving digital cooperation. Building on and incorporating the Sustainable Development Goals that have guided the UN’s development efforts over the past decade, the process of translating this aspiration towards digital cooperation into actions and results is now well underway.
‘We will improve digital cooperation’
Digital technologies have unequivocally reshaped our world, offering unmeasurable opportunities. Yet, they also present increasing challenges when used in ways inconsistent with international law and responsible state behaviour in cyberspace. These technologies can either defuse tensions, enhance predictability, uphold human rights, improve security and bridge disparities or they can just do the opposite. Much like any dual use technology, their impact depends on how they are harnessed.
To take advantage of the benefits of digital technology while mitigating risks and fortifying security, a shared understanding is imperative, especially as our reliance on technology deepens. In the UN75 Declaration, UN Members committed to improving digital cooperation, and called on the UN to provide a platform where all stakeholders could engage in these crucial discussions, giving birth to the concept of a Global Digital Compact.
‘Our Common Agenda’
In September 2021, the UN Secretary-General responded to the UN75 Declaration with the ‘Our Common Agenda’ report. The report proposes a Global Digital Compact, the specifics of which will be agreed upon at the Summit of the Future in September 2024 through a technology track involving all stakeholders: governments, UN agencies, the private sector (including tech companies), civil society, academia and individuals.
The proposed aims of the Compact include improving connectivity, avoiding internet fragmentation, safeguarding data integrity, upholding online human rights, ensuring accountability for misinformation dissemination, advocating for artificial intelligence (AI) regulation and promoting the digital commons as a global public good. These initiatives build upon the recommendations of the Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation in 2018 and 2019, which paved the way for 2020’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation.
A multi-stakeholder endeavour
Per the Our Common Agenda report, a diverse multi-stakeholder pool is set to come together to agree on a Compact that encapsulates shared principles for an open, free and secure digital future for all. Numerous digital issues were addressed in the report, and to deepen understanding among Member States, consultations were held in February and March 2022. The Permanent Representatives from Rwanda and Sweden to the United Nations in New York were designated to lead the intergovernmental process on the proposed Global Digital Compact, ensuring that all relevant stakeholders could meaningfully engage.
Shaping the consultations on the Global Digital Compact
In January 2023, newly appointed co-facilitators from Rwanda and Sweden began convening open consultations with stakeholders. In February, they released an updated road map for their process, scheduling several months of thematic deep dives into critical topics, designed to ensure a comprehensive understanding. The initial consultations reflected strong support for including the Sustainable Development Goals, prompting a dedicated session on acceleration.
The other thematic topics proposed were digital inclusion and connectivity, internet governance, data protection, human rights online, digital trust and security, artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies, and the global digital commons. These consultations provided a robust foundation for the forthcoming discussions.
Consultations with Member States on these topics unfolded from March to June 2023. The primary objective was to facilitate the sharing of views and knowledge. Each thematic discussion was enriched by insights from a select group of experts and stakeholders’ participation was ensured. This marked a departure from the complex patterns observed in other UN fora, emphasising the significance of stakeholders’ participation. Moreover, a call to action was extended, ensuring that all relevant parties could engage meaningfully.
As the process unfolded, a notable surge of online submissions underscored the keen interest in the process. In May 2023, the Secretary-General published a Policy Brief to serve as pivotal input for the preparation of the Summit of the Future. The Brief not only built upon the ideas shared in the Our Common Agenda report but also incorporated the insights derived from the consultations led by the co-facilitators.
The Policy Brief outlined action proposals to advance our digital future, introducing innovative concepts such as a ‘human-centred’ approach, which complements the ideals of an open, free and secure digital future outlined in the Our Common Agenda report. This publication coincided with significant strides in generative AI at the close of 2022, particularly in Large Language Models, sparking a renewed discussion about the imperative of human rights safeguards.
Within this landscape, urgent areas for multi-stakeholder cooperation were delineated. This encompassed efforts to bridge the digital divide (including the gender divide), securing cyberspace to make it open and safe for everyone and governing AI for betterment of humanity. The Policy Brief also proposed the establishment of a high-level advisory board for AI within the framework of the Global Digital Compact. The newly appointed board is currently in progress and will begin its consultations shortly. Comprising a high-level, gender balanced, geographically diverse and multi-generational group of expert form various backgrounds, this multi-stakeholder advisory board will play a significant role in shaping deliberations at the Summit of the Future in 2024.
As part of the deep dive discussions earlier in the year, the co-facilitators shared their assessments, intended to provide further input for the negotiations set to commence in late 2023/early 2024.
Working our way into the process
The inception of the Global Digital Compact, alongside other initiatives stemming from the Our Common Agenda report, did not follow a strictly state-mandated path. This can sometimes make it challenging to achieve engagement from Member States, which is necessary to ensure outcomes that resonate with the diverse realities of the broader membership. Following extensive consultations on the scope of the Summit of the Future, a consensus was reached on August 30, 2023. It was decided that the Summit’s scope would encompass five chapters, with Chapter III designated as ‘Science, Technology, Innovation and Digital Cooperation.’ An additional request was made to the President of the General Assembly (PGA) to appoint co-facilitators by October 31, 2023, to facilitate inclusive intergovernmental consultations on the Global Digital Compact. On October 10, 2023, the PGA appointed Permanent Representatives of Sweden and Zambia as new co-facilitators to lead the intergovernmental consultations on the Compact.
For the Compact to thrive, the significance of creating synergies and building upon existing platforms cannot be overemphasised. So much has been accomplished in existing forums, such as the ITU, IGF, UNESCO, WSIS, the Office of the Envoy on Technology, as other related processes within the UN General Assembly. To ensure the Compact’s success, it is crucial to prevent duplications and to instead leverage existing initiatives. We are not starting from scratch in areas like connectivity, internet governance, data protection or AI and other emerging technologies.
Promoting a multi-stakeholder and collaborative approach is paramount, given the decentralized nature of the internet. This ensures that all interested parties can contribute from their expertise to the development and shaping of our digital future.
The Global Digital Compact will serve as a convergence point for various digital realities. While avoiding duplication is important, it is also crucial to collaborate with existing subsidiary bodies established by the General Assembly – particularly in the areas of cybercrime, autonomous weapons systems and information and telecommunications in the context of international security – and multi-stakeholder bodies like the IGF and WSIS, as well as other stakeholders’ platforms.
What’s next and why it matters
Negotiations on the Global Digital Compact are set to commence in the coming months and will continue into the first quarter of 2024. Every Member State’s active involvement will be fundamental, with a special emphasis on the critical contributions of developing countries. Their participation is pivotal in achieving a consensus-driven outcome.
In discussions and consultations so far, certain priorities have emerged. The geopolitics of submarine cables and semiconductors, for instance, will play a crucial role in ensuring the connectivity we all aspire to. It is essential to recognise that, in our increasingly digital world, infrastructure needs to align with inclusivity, covering aspects like affordability, access, literacy and tailored skills. To incorporate a gender dimension into these discussions has a great deal of importance.
Data forms another cornerstone of the Compact, representing both development and innovation. Yet, a one-size-fits-all governance model for data does not exist. Trust, alongside frameworks for secure data flows and protection for data rights, is paramount to bolstering data’s immeasurable value.
Cybersecurity will take centre stage, with threat assessments being pivotal in maintaining a secure cyberspace. Emerging technologies present both new opportunities and vulnerabilities, necessitating continued discussions. Additionally, grappling with disinformation, hate speech and harmful content is of utmost importance, as is ensuring equal protection of human rights both online and offline.
Discussions on digital commons and public goods will be critical to enable everyone to harness the benefits of digital transformation. AI will also be a focal point, with governance and regulation at the forefront. Striking a risk-based approach to AI could significantly enhance regulatory efforts. However, governance gaps will persist, especially considering the substantial imbalance between government and private sector capacities in harnessing AI. Seeking input from experts will be invaluable, as the intricacies of AI extend beyond the scope of traditional diplomatic settings. Employing technologically neutral terms will be crucial to ensure the Compact remains adaptable to advancement, such as the intersection of quantum computing and AI, expected in the near future.
About the Author
Julia Rodriguez is a diplomat specializing in disarmament and international security, with a dedicated focus on information and communication technologies, cybersecurity and emerging technologies. She is actively engaged in multilateral processes that are deepening understanding of both existing and emerging information security threats and that are advancing confidence-building measures, cyber capacity building, digital cooperation and dialogue on responsible state behaviour in cyberspace.