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1. Introduction: Interdependence ‎in the Digital Age

Digital technologies are rapidly transforming societies and economies, simultaneously advancing the human condition and creating ‎profound and unprecedented challenges. How well are we managing the complex impacts on our individual and collective lives? How ‎can we use digital technologies to contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals? What are current best ‎practices and gaps in digital cooperation? What new ways of working together are needed, and who should be involved? ‎

These are among the questions the UN Secretary-General asked us to consider.1 We approached our task with both humility and ‎urgency. The challenges are multi-faceted and rapidly evolving. The potential that could be unlocked by improved digital cooperation is ‎enormous – and so are the perils if humanity fails to create more effective and inclusive ways for citizens, civil society, governments, ‎academia and the private sector to work together. ‎

‎“Digital cooperation” is used in this report to describe ways 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. ‎

As digital technologies have come to touch almost every aspect of modern life, a patchwork of cooperation and governance ‎mechanisms has gradually emerged to generate norms, standards, policies and protocols in this arena. In 2014, the United Nations ‎identified 680 distinct mechanisms related to digital cooperation,2 and the number has since risen to over a thousand.3 In many ‎technical areas, these mechanisms work well. But they struggle to keep up with the unprecedented pace and increasingly wide range ‎of change. ‎

While digital technologies have been developing for many years, in the last decade their cumulative impacts have become so deep, ‎wide-ranging and fast-changing as to herald the dawn of a new age. The cost of massive computing power has fallen.4 Billions of ‎people and devices have come online.5 Digital content now crosses borders in vast volumes, with constant shifts in what is produced ‎and how and where it is used. ‎

The spread of digital technologies has already improved the world in myriad ways. It has, for example, revolutionised the ability to ‎communicate with others and to share and access knowledge. Individuals from long-neglected populations have used mobile money ‎and other financial services for the first time, and started businesses that reach both domestic and global markets.6 If we are to achieve ‎the flagship ambition of the Sustainable Development Goals, to end extreme poverty by 2030, improved digital cooperation will need to ‎play a vital role. ‎

But digital technologies have also brought new and very serious concerns. Around the world, many people are increasingly – and ‎rightly – worried that our growing reliance on digital technologies has created new ways for individuals, companies and governments to ‎intentionally cause harm or to act irresponsibly. Virtually every day brings new stories about hatred being spread on social media, ‎invasion of privacy by businesses and governments, cyber-attacks using weaponised digital technologies or states violating the rights ‎of political opponents.7
And many people have been left out of the benefits of digital technology. Digital dividends co-exist with digital divides. Well more than ‎half the world’s population still either lacks affordable access to the internet or is using only a fraction of its potential despite being ‎connected.8 People who lack safe and affordable access to digital technologies are overwhelmingly from groups who are already ‎marginalised: women, elderly people and those with disabilities; indigenous groups; and those who live in poor, remote or rural areas.9 ‎Many existing inequalities – in wealth, opportunity, education, and health – are being widened further. ‎

The speed and scale of change is increasing – and the agility, responsiveness and scope of cooperation and governance mechanisms ‎needs rapidly to improve. We cannot afford to wait any longer to develop better ways to cooperate, collaborate and reach consensus. ‎We urgently need new forms of digital cooperation to ensure that digital technologies are built on a foundation of respect for human ‎rights and provide meaningful opportunity for all people and nations. ‎

The speed and scale of change is increasing – and the agility, ‎responsiveness and scope of cooperation and governance mechanisms ‎needs rapidly to improve. We cannot afford to wait any longer to develop ‎better ways to cooperate, collaborate and reach consensus. We urgently ‎need new forms of digital cooperation to ensure that digital technologies ‎are built on a foundation of respect for human rights and provide ‎meaningful opportunity for all people and nations.‎

OUR DIGITAL INTERDEPENDENCE 

If we want to use digital technologies to improve life for everyone, we will have to go about it consciously and deliberately – with civil society, companies and governments recognising their interdependence and working together. The unique benefits and profound risks arising from the dramatic increase in computing power and interconnectivity in the digital age reinforce our underlying interdependence. Globally and locally, we are increasingly linked in an ever-expanding digital web, just as we are increasingly linked, and mutually dependent, in the spheres of economics, public well-being and the environment. 

The critical need to improve digital cooperation comes at a time when many of the mechanisms of multilateral cooperation developed since World War II are under unprecedented duress. Although far from perfect, these avenues for cooperation between national governments underpinned one of the most peaceful and productive periods in human history. Their erosion is dangerous: it will make it harder to capitalise on the benefits of digital technologies and mitigate the hazards. 

Reinvigorating multilateralism alone will not be sufficient. Effective digital cooperation requires that multilateralism be complemented by multi-stakeholderism – cooperation that involves governments and a diverse spectrum of other stakeholders such as civil society, technologists, academics, and the private sector (ranging from small enterprises to large technology companies). 

While only governments can make laws, all these stakeholders are needed to contribute to effective governance by cooperating to assess the complex and dynamic impacts of digital technologies and developing shared norms, standards and practices. We need to bring far more diverse voices to the table, particularly from developing countries and traditionally marginalised populations. Important digital issues have often been decided behind closed doors, without the involvement of those who are most affected by the decisions. 

The unique benefits and risks arising from the dramatic increase in computing power and interconnectivity in the digital age reinforce our underlying interdependence."

Managing digital technologies to maximise benefits to society and minimise harms requires a far-sighted and wide-ranging view of the complex ways in which they interact with societal, environmental, ethical, legal and economic systems. The Panel is enormously grateful to the many individuals, institutions and others who provided us with their insights and expertise as we sought to better understand how to navigate this new landscape. We endeavoured to consult as broadly as possible in the time available.

Drawing on many thoughtful reflections,10 we identified the following nine values that we believe should shape the development of digital cooperation:

  • Inclusiveness – Leaving no one behind, so that we can maximise equality of opportunity, access and outcomes to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals;
  • Respect – Embodying respect for human rights and human dignity, diversity, the safety and security of personal data and devices, and national and international law; 
  • Human-centredness – Maximising benefits to humans, and ensuring that humans remain responsible for decisions; 
  • Human flourishing – Promoting sustainable economic growth, the social good and opportunities for self-realisation; 
  • Transparency – Promoting open access to information and operations; 
  • Collaboration – Upholding open standards and interoperability to facilitate collaboration; 
  • Accessibility – Developing affordable, simple and reliable devices and services for as diverse a range of users as possible; 
  • Sustainability – Furthering the aim of a zero-carbon, zero-waste economy that does not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs; and, 
  • Harmony – The use by governments and businesses of digital technologies in ways that earn the trust of peers, partners and people, and that avoid exploiting or exacerbating divides and conflicts. 

ABOUT THIS REPORT 

As a panel, we strove for consensus, but we did not always agree. We have noted areas where our views differed and tried to give a balanced summary of our debates and perspectives. While there was not unanimity of opinion among the Panel members regarding all of the recommendations, the Panel does endorse the full report in the spirit of promoting digital cooperation. 

The next three chapters highlight issues that emerged from the Panel’s deliberations, setting out the backdrop for the recommendations in the final chapter. Our report does not aim to be comprehensive – some important topics are touched briefly or not at all – but to focus on areas where we felt digital cooperation could make the greatest difference. These chapters deal broadly with the areas of economics, society and governance, while noting that many issues – such as capacity, infrastructure and data – are relevant to all. 

Chapter 2, Leaving No One Behind, assesses the contribution of digital technologies to the Sustainable Development Goals. It addresses issues including financial inclusion, affordable and meaningful access to the internet, the future of education and jobs and the need for regional and global economic policy cooperation.

Chapter 3, Individuals, Societies and Digital Technologies, discusses the application of human rights to the digital age, the need to keep human rights and human agency at the centre of technological development, and the imperative to improve cooperation on digital security and trust. 

Chapter 4, Mechanisms for Global Digital Cooperation, identifies gaps in current mechanisms of global digital cooperation, the functions of digital cooperation and principles digital cooperation should aim to follow, provides three options for potential new global digital cooperation architectures, and discusses the role of the United Nations in promoting digital cooperation. 

Drawing on the analysis in the preceding chapters, Chapter 5 shares and explains our Recommendations for shaping our common digital future. 

As members of the Panel, we brought a wide range of experience of working in government, business, academic institutions, philanthropy and civil society organisations – but we engaged in our task as equal citizens of a digitalising world, appreciating the vital role of all stakeholders and the need for humility and cooperation. 

In this spirit, we invite all stakeholders to commit to a Declaration of Digital Interdependence: 

DECLARATION OF DIGITAL INTERDEPENDENCE

Humanity is still in the foothills of the digital age.

The peaks are yet uncharted, and their promise still untold. But the risks of losing our foothold are apparent: dangerous adventurism among states, exploitative behaviour by companies, regulation that stifles innovation and trade, and an unforgivable failure to realise vast potential for advancing human development. 

How we manage the opportunities and risks of rapid technological change will profoundly impact our future and the future of the planet. 

We believe that our aspirations and vulnerabilities are deeply interconnected and interdependent; that no one individual, institution, corporation or government alone can or should manage digital developments; and that it is essential that we work through our differences in order to shape our common digital future. 

We declare our commitment to building on our shared values and collaborating in new ways to realise a vision of humanity’s future in which affordable and accessible digital technologies are used to enable economic growth and social opportunity, lessen inequality, enhance peace and security, promote environmental sustainability, preserve human agency, advance human rights and meet human needs.