Global leaders and heads of state have convened in New York this week for the annual United Nations High-level Week. On the agenda is a ministerial meeting to prepare for the UN’s 2024 Summit of the Future. A key focus of this meeting is the development of the UN’s Global Digital Compact (GDC), which aims to establish principles and commitments to ensure that digital technologies benefit all people around the world.
While the GDC seems timely given the rapid advancements in technology, there are growing concerns that it could pave the way for digital authoritarianism. Supported Russia and China, there are worries that the compact could consolidate digital control within the multilateral system, enabling these countries to exert undue influence over the UN.
The GDC was proposed UN Secretary-General António Guterres in his 2021 report, “Our Common Agenda.” The compact aims to address various issues such as access to digital technologies, digital inclusion, digital governance, the use of digital technologies for sustainable development, and the ethical use of artificial intelligence. The final text of the GDC will be adopted at the UN Summit of the Future in September 2024.
The concern with the GDC lies in its centralization of technology and digital governance within the multilateral system. Currently, digital governance follows a multi-stakeholder model, where governments, civil society, technical communities, businesses, and individuals all have a say. However, the GDC would shift these issues solely to nation states, giving them exclusive control over digital governance.
This shift is a priority for countries like Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran, as it allows them to exert greater control over digital realms to serve their political and security interests. By minimizing the roles of civil society, the private sector, and advocacy groups, these countries can expand their influence in governance and policymaking.
Additionally, there are concerns regarding the limited participation of civil society in the GDC process. Consultation sessions have been cut short, and preference has been given to nation states and big tech companies over civil society. This lack of meaningful participation raises questions about the legitimacy and inclusivity of the GDC.
Furthermore, the GDC duplicates and overlaps with existing UN multi-stakeholder processes and fora. The establishment of a new digital cooperation forum under the GDC would essentially duplicate the Internet Governance Forum, which already addresses similar issues and has a well-developed multi-stakeholder mechanism.
While the GDC may have admirable goals, its current approach inadvertently provides China and Russia with a platform to promote their multilateral agenda for digital governance. In response, democracies should encourage the international community to improve existing multi-stakeholder processes instead of duplicating them and transferring issues to the multilateral system.
– UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ 2021 report “Our Common Agenda”
– Policy brief on the GDC the UN Secretary-General
– Letter from civil society groups to the GDC