UN open forum: Connecting the digital dots – How the UN System is supporting the digital transformation and the way forward

7 Dec 2021 14:00h - 15:00h

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This was a first of its kind open forum where senior heads of United Nations (UN) agencies shared how internet governance is relevant to their work and how they are contributing to the broader process of inclusive, collaborative, development-oriented internet governance.

Internet governance and internet public policy issues and decisions cannot be isolated. They cannot be concentrated and localised in any one sphere or in any one agency as the internet touches so many aspects of social, political, economic, and security issues.

Many UN entities have been supporting inter-governmental processes, norm-setting, and capacity development, helping countries to apply digital technologies to bridge digital divides, improve public service delivery, and deliver and develop their digital economies.

Mr Liu Zhenmin (Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA)) noted that the IGF is a good platform to exchange experiences in working on the digital ecosystem, digital policy, and digital capacity-building, as he called for his UN colleagues to make the internet a better place for all people on the planet, and especially to harness digital transformation for sustainable development.

Some UN agencies discussed their engagements with the internet and internet governance.

The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has been advocating the ROAM (Rights, Openness, Accessibility to all, Multistakeholder participation) framework – a human rights-based open, accessible, and multistakeholder approach for digital governance and internet governance – with 34 countries adopting it so far. UNESCO is a leading agency when it comes to freedom of expression and the safety of journalists, both central issues in cyberspace. Their work also extends to combating hate speech, violent speech, extremism, and the negative sides of misusing the internet, including misinformation and disinformation.

At the World Bank, the ways in which digital can be used to modernise public service delivery has become increasingly important to their research programme. They are financing the rollout of broadband networks in rural areas using high-command capacity transmission networks, both terrestrial and submarine, to bring digital low-cost bandwidth to developing countries. Their focus is also increasing on green and inclusive development.

The Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Technology at the UN is a follow-up to the UN Secretary-General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation. It works in an inclusive and open manner, particularly through multistakeholder partnerships. The roadmap calls for a more coherent and coordinated global effort and digital capacity-building.

The Secretary-General’s new report Our Common Agenda also calls for improving digital cooperation and achieving universal digital inclusivity widely accepted by member states. The objectives formulated in the report point to digital inclusivity, protection of human rights, protection of data, fighting misinformation, and promoting digital literacy.

All activities at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) are guided by six principles linked to the Rome Call for Ethics on AI: transparency, inclusion, responsibility, impartial ability, reliability, security, and privacy. FAO’s position is to strengthen the focus on digital for impact. Its priorities are to further accelerate the use of innovative technologies and continue to improve on a portfolio of information and communication technologies (ICT) services, tools that will continue to achieve the sustainable development goals (SDGs) worldwide.

The UN division for disarmament research that provides independent research and innovative ideas on international security issues has seen a surge in malicious cyber activity. Their security and technology programme looks at cyber stability, the implications of artificial intelligence (AI) in weapon systems and military decision-making, emerging trends, etc.

The ICT policy division of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) leveraged technology to enhance the experience and significantly expand participation at COP26. The platform included virtual and onsite digital ID registration thus increasing participation from an expected 30,000 participants to 50,000 virtual participants. This led to broader participation and inclusivity both from governments and multistakeholders and non-actors, such as civil society and indigenous people, and a very large outcry from youth to participate in their activities.

Several processes at the IGF have synergies with the work of various agencies. Like the Best Practice Forum (BPF) for Gender and Access complements the awareness of gender violence campaigned by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

Similarly, UNESCO has come up with recommendations on the ethics of AI, which have been adopted by their 193 member states. It is the first global normative instrument of its kind to ensure safeguards not only in the use of AI but also in the design and the development of AI-based applications and systems.

Most UN agencies employ digital tools or are working to better digital lives. The challenge within the UN system now is to ensure that they work together as a broad, multistakeholder community. As there is a lot of overlap in the various initiatives by various UN agencies, there is scope for collaborating and optimising resources and sharing knowledge.

The IGF can be a bridge between this depth of knowledge and this broader community and exist in the overlap of work of all UN agencies.

By Mili Semlani

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Automated summary

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