United Nations Secretary General’s roadmap for digital cooperation

29 May 2020

Policy Reports

Road map for Digital Cooperation


About document: Report of the UN Secreetary General | UN General Assembly – 74th Session| No: A/74/821 | Distr.: General | 29 May 2020 | UN GA Agenda item 14: Integrated and coordinated implementation of and follow-up to the outcomes of the major United Nations conferences and summits in the economic, social and related fields

Summary: The present report serves to respond to and builds upon the report of the High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation. The current situation of digital cooperation is assessed, including in terms of the ongoing coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic; urgent gaps and challenges are highlighted; and actions to strengthen global digital cooperation are set out. 


  1. Background  
  2. Introduction  
  3. Consideration of the recommendations of the High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation  
  4. Inclusive digital economy and society
  5. Human and institutional capacity  
  6. Human rights and human agency 
  7. Trust, security and stability
  8. Global digital cooperation
  9. Concluding observations and way forward


I. Background

1. In July 2018, the Secretary-General convened a High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation to advance proposals to strengthen cooperation in the digital space among Governments, the private sector, civil society, international organizations, academic institutions, the technical community and other relevant stakeholders. Co-chaired by Melinda Gates and Jack Ma, the 20 members of the Panel served in their personal capacities, representing an unprecedented mix of disciplines and sectors and geographic, gender and age diversity. 

2. The Panel completed its deliberations and submitted its final report, entitled “The age of digital interdependence”, in June 2019. In the report, the Panel included the following five sets of recommendations on how the international community could work together to optimize the use of digital technologies and mitigate the risks:

(a) Build an inclusive digital economy and society;

(b) Develop human and institutional capacity;

(c) Protect human rights and human agency;

(d) Promote digital trust, security and stability;

(e) Foster global digital cooperation.


3. Following the issuance of the report, Member States and over 300 entities and organizations were contacted. More than 100 sent feedback to the Secretariat, including volunteering to lead or participate in discussions on the Panel’s recommendations. The Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on the Preparations for the Commemoration of the United Nations 75th Anniversary coordinated the follow-up process to the Panel.

4. Round-table discussion groups of subject-matter experts were constituted to address the Panel’s recommendations. Champions were selected on the basis of experience, previous engagement with the Panel and geographic and stakeholder diversity to coordinate and lead each group. The round-table groups held consultations on how to proceed with the recommendations, including by providing input for the present report. Their contributions provided invaluable advice, which was carefully considered in the preparation of sections III and IV of the present report.

5. The report is aimed at, first, summarizing the state of play in relation to each of the Panel’s recommendations, incorporating the subsequent consultations on follow-up, and, second, setting out in the concluding observations the envisaged action points for the way forward.


II. Introduction

6. As the world grapples with the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, it is witnessing first-hand how digital technologies help to confront the threat and keep people connected. Supercomputers analyse thousands of drug compounds to identify candidates for treatments and vaccines. E-commerce platforms prioritize household staples and medical supplies, while videoconferencing platforms enable education and economic activity to continue.

7. At the same time, the technological challenge posed by COVID-19 has been tremendous. While accurate data and information related to the disease are fundamental for an effective response, social media have been misused by some to spread dangerous misinformation and fuel discrimination, xenophobia and racism. Cyberattacks on the World Health Organization, hospitals and laboratories endanger lives and jeopardize potential advances in responding to and preventing the virus. A balance has to be struck between the use of technology and tracing applications to combat the spread of the virus and the safeguarding of privacy and individual rights. Even as digital technology makes it possible for people in countries with high connectivity to work and learn from home, it is a privilege not enjoyed by all: some people must be physically present for their jobs, while others have lost employment or do not have access to the Internet and technology, in particular the poor and vulnerable. With less access to the Internet, women and girls are disproportionately affected.

8. Digital technology does not exist in a vacuum – it has enormous potential for positive change, but can also reinforce and magnify existing fault lines and worsen economic and other inequalities. In 2019, close to 87 per cent of individuals in developed countries used the Internet, compared with only 19 per cent in the least developed countries.

9. As more people are brought online, new vulnerabilities arise. According to estimates, the potential cost of worldwide data breaches will be more than $5 trillion by 2024. The use of the Internet and social media in the context of elections, as both enablers of participation and tools for spreading disinformation and hate speech, raise complex issues.

10. Though not explicitly indicated in the Panel’s report, advancing technology has always been coupled with significant impacts on the environment. Operations related to information and communications technologies (ICT) are expected to represent up to 20 per cent of global electricity demand, with one third stemming from data centres alone. On a positive note, the recent advances in technology offer ground-breaking opportunities to monitor and protect the environment, as well as overall planetary health. By harnessing them appropriately, the digital revolution can be steered to combat climate change and advance global sustainability, environmental stewardship and human well-being. 

11. The prevalence of child sexual exploitation and abuse is also a major concern. In 2019, 70 million pieces of child sexual abuse material were reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children of the United States, while many more went undetected. The international community has long stood united in its shared resolve to protect children. Building on that resolve, cooperation between national law enforcement agencies and major technology companies has increased, but more can be done. Companies must embrace more robust scanning practices and accelerate detection methods focused on prevention. This approach must also be supported by important legislative steps. In that regard, multi-stakeholder partnerships, such as the WeProtect Global Alliance and the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children, are of great benefit.

12. The world is at a critical inflection point for technology governance, made more urgent by the ongoing pandemic. For example, according to the 11 norms of responsible State behaviour, agreed upon in 2015, States should not conduct or knowingly support ICT activity that intentionally damages critical infrastructure – an essential agreement for the current global response. Such norms provide a foundation for significantly scaling up and identifying innovative, ambitious initiatives and opportunities for technology governance. It is important to redouble efforts to better harness the potential of digital technologies while mitigating the harm that they may cause.

III. Consideration of the recommendations of the High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation


A. Inclusive digital economy and society

Recommendation 1A (global connectivity)

13. Meaningful participation in today’s digital age requires a high-speed broadband connection to the Internet. Countries report that 93 per cent of the world’s population live within physical reach of mobile broadband or Internet services. However, only 53.6 per cent of the world’s population now use the Internet, leaving an estimated 3.6 billion without access. The least developed countries are the least connected, at only 19 per cent of their populations.

14. Numerous barriers exacerbate the digital divide. First, installing traditional broadband connections is costly, and countries often face difficulties in financing the fibre-optic cables required. Second, market dynamics are often not favourable. Lower purchasing power in the least developed countries is a limiting factor for connectivity providers and, although wireless technology may help to spread broadband coverage further, faster and more cheaply, companies do not have the incentives to pursue this. Finally, the lack of digital skills can also limit the adoption of digital tools.

15. The fundamental issue of affordability of access and equipment has to be addressed. In 19 of the least developed countries, the price of 5 GB of fixed broadband is more than 20 per cent of monthly gross national income per capita. Concerted efforts to promote affordability can therefore have real impact; in low- to middle-income countries, breaking up a broadband monopoly can help users to save as much as $7.33 per GB of mobile data. In Myanmar, for example, the creation of a competitive market slashed the cost of subscriber identity module cards from $150 in 2013 to $1.50 in 2015, allowing 2 million new subscribers within the first month. Special attention should also be given to ensuring connectivity in times of crisis and in humanitarian operations. COVID-19 has already shown how connectivity is a critical need. Inaccessibility to the Internet has posed a direct risk to individuals’ ability to save their own lives and livelihoods, as well as for Governments and front-line workers to respond quickly and effectively. In the present crisis, connectivity needs to be prioritized as a foundation to ensure the continuation of critical services, enable digital literacy and promote social inclusion.

16. A central challenge to building an inclusive digital economy is that there are no baselines regarding the fundamental level of digital connectivity that individuals need to access the online space. Identifying such baselines, with flexibility to update them as necessary in the light of technology changes, would enable the development of targets and metrics. Risk factors that affect the ability of vulnerable and marginalized groups to have access to connectivity should be specifically identified and addressed.

17. Baselines and targets of “affordability” are also necessary, along with universal targets and metrics, such as defining affordable Internet as “pricing 1 GB of mobile broadband data at 2 per cent or less of average monthly income” or ensuring that entry-level broadband services in developing countries cost less than 2 per cent of monthly gross national income. Establishing baselines and targets could form the basis of general cost and investment estimates. For instance, it is estimated that achieving universal, affordable and quality Internet access by 2030 across Africa may cost as much as $100 billion. Achieving connectivity for the 3.6 billion people currently unconnected globally will cost significantly more. In the absence of baselines on fundamental connectivity and affordability, building a financing platform to address these needs will be challenging.

18. At the national level, governments and communities, with the support of multi-stakeholder coalitions, can conduct local and regional assessments of connectivity needs in order to develop comprehensive connectivity plans. Real-time data about connectivity levels and projects can be made available to help to develop appropriate financing models. Ambitious regional infrastructure development initiatives, such as GIGA, a groundbreaking partnership to connect every school in the world to the Internet, can provide inspiration.

19. Some policies have been shown to promote connectivity, including regulations aimed at creating an enabling environment for smaller-scale providers, including broadband cooperatives, municipal networks and local businesses, by putting in place practices such as facilitating licence exemption and tax incentive schemes.

20. As increasingly discussed within the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, emerging technologies also play a key role in promoting connectivity and the digital economy, as they can help to provide, monitor and finance Internet connectivity.

Recommendation 1B (digital public goods)

21. Digital public goods are essential in unlocking the full potential of digital technologies and data to attain the Sustainable Development Goals, in particular for low- and middle-income countries. The Internet began as a publicly managed network with an open-source ethos that encouraged collaboration and experimentation. Over time, however, the percentage of the Internet that is open-source and public has significantly decreased. Hence, much of the most useful information online is not easily accessible, especially to those who need it the most.

22. During the 2014–2015 outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, insights drawn from aggregated data, which were made public and shareable, played a crucial role in containing the virus. The utilization of big data and artificial intelligence to create “digital public goods in the form of actionable real-time and predictive insights” is critical for all stakeholders, including the United Nations, as they can serve to identify new disease outbreaks, counter xenophobia and disinformation and measure impacts on vulnerable populations, among other relevant challenges. Other digital solutions are also being deployed to address the COVID-19 pandemic. For other health crises, an open-source digital data package can be envisaged to accelerate case detection and open educational resources during school closures. 

23. Currently, access to digital solutions is often limited through copyright regimes and proprietary systems. Most existing digital public goods are not easily accessible because they are often unevenly distributed in terms of the language, content and infrastructure required to access them. Even when the relevant digital public good or open-source solution is found, support and additional investment are still required to scale them up and successfully implement them. A concerted global effort to create digital public goods would be key to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. 

24. Several such digital public goods platforms are emerging, including most significantly the Digital Public Goods Alliance, a multi-stakeholder initiative responding directly to the lack of a “go to” platform, as highlighted by the Panel in its report. The work of the Alliance is complemented by efforts such as the Global Data Access Framework, which is aimed at developing technical infrastructure to enable and scale up the sharing of data in all modalities to speed up the processes for creating quality digital public goods. 

25. These initiatives are critical to the development of common standards on open data that can guide the private and public sectors on how to provide open access to data sets, ensuring that more data become available as digital public goods, while respecting privacy and confidentiality. Central to the implementation of digital public goods are robust human rights and governance frameworks to enhance trust in technology and data use, while ensuring inclusion.

Recommendations 1C and 1D (digital inclusion

26. Even when ostensibly available, access to digital technologies remains uneven. As the Panel states in its report, “The people being left behind are typically those who can least afford it”. Digital divides reflect and amplify existing social, cultural and economic inequalities. The gender gap in global Internet use is a stark example – in two out of every three countries, more men use the Internet than women. This gender gap has been growing rather than narrowing, standing at 17 per cent in 2019, and was even larger in the least developed countries, at 43 per cent. Similar challenges affect migrants, refugees, internally displaced persons, older persons, young people, children, persons with disabilities, rural populations and indigenous peoples.

27. The COVID-19 pandemic underscores the urgency in bridging these divides. Digital tools have been a lifeline for millions of people. Without prompt action, there is a risk of layering the current barriers to digital inclusion on top of existing obstacles to development. In looking towards post-COVID-19 economic support for developing countries, digital tools have to be leveraged for these countries, as well as underserved groups, so that recovery efforts build an inclusive digital infrastructure that would accelerate progress for all. 

28. The efforts that Member States and stakeholders are already undertaking, including the forthcoming multi-stakeholder action coalition on innovation and technology for gender equality, are much needed. 

29. Nevertheless, globally, efforts have to be better coordinated and scaled up. A set of metrics to measure digital inclusion will be essential for evidence-based policymaking. In developing these metrics, the underlying definition of what it means to be digitally literate and have digital access has to be based on the fundamental premise that everyone should have an equal opportunity to become empowered through ICT. It means accessibility through not only physical access and skills development, but also design that respects the needs of all people, including those with disabilities, as well as addressing intersectionality, social norms, language barriers, structural barriers and risks, recognizing the importance of locally relevant content. Public-private cooperation will also be important in collecting disaggregated and anonymized data across demographic groups.

30. Sound measurement and improved coordination and information-sharing are best done together with guidelines on policies and actions that can help to mitigate the multiple digital gaps. The United Nations system has begun to develop guidance in that regard, though it would benefit from wider advocacy. 

31. It is also critical to apply a gender lens to all interventions on digital cooperation and technologies. This includes acknowledging gender-differentiated vulnerabilities to digitalization and identifying adequate risk mitigation actions. 

32. Moreover, greater attention needs to be given to the situation of people on the move, including migrants, or those facing emergency and conflict-affected situations, given that these most vulnerable communities are often absent from digital cooperation discussions and face additional challenges in achieving connectivity. 


B. Human and institutional capacity

Recommendation 2 (digital capacity-building

33. The need for digital capacity-building is substantial. Achieving real and sustained progress in the various dimensions of digitalization requires skills development and effective training, in particular in developing countries. This is necessary to unlock the benefits of technology, including the more effective use of emerging technologies and ensuring that individuals stay safe, protected and productive online. For example, it is estimated that there will be 230 million “digital jobs” in sub-Saharan Africa by 2030 that could generate nearly $120 billion in revenue, but this would require some 650 million training opportunities by 2030. 

34. One of the primary challenges to date is that a large part of digital capacity-building has been supply-driven as opposed to needs-based. Insufficient investment also remains a significant limiting factor. Moreover, digital capacity-building has to be tailored to individual and national circumstances. Given variances within and among countries and regions, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, and better evidence is therefore needed of which capacity-building approaches are most effective, considering political, economic and social contexts.

35. To overcome these challenges, two aspects are central: greater coherence and coordination in capacity-building efforts; and a concerted effort at scaling up solutions.

36. Holistic, inclusive approaches that bring together existing initiatives, United Nations entities, regional and subregional bodies and other relevant organizations that promote digital capacity-building are necessary to improve support for Governments and other stakeholders. In its report, the Panel proposed “digital help desks” as one potential solution that could leverage regional institutions and platforms. Since the issuance of the Panel’s report, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) have begun an initial mapping exercise of existing digital capacity-building initiatives to assess gaps and inform forward-looking solutions. The exercise will be expanded to include a detailed needs assessment component to support capacity-building providers in targeting their services more effectively to meet stakeholder needs.

37. The coordination work set out above requires matching efforts at the national level, especially through the United Nations presence on the ground. United Nations country teams, through their resident coordinators, could serve as the system’s in-country focal points on digital cooperation. Country-level support could also be amplified through engagement with local college graduates and other young professionals who could work closely with United Nations actors in launching and managing various rural-centric initiatives to advance broadband access, adoption and meaningful usage. 


C. Human rights and human agency

Recommendations 3A and 3B (digital human rights

38. Digital technologies provide new means to advocate, defend and exercise human rights, but they can also be used to suppress, limit and violate human rights. As the Panel noted, existing human rights treaties were signed in a pre-digital era. In today’s world, where online violations can lead to offline abuses, the Internet cannot be an ungoverned or ungovernable space – human rights exist online as they do offline and have to be respected in full (see A/70/174). 

39. Effective due diligence is required to ensure that technology products, policies, practices and terms of service comply with human rights principles and standards. To that end, the Secretary-General, in his call to action for human rights, addresses new frontiers of technology and human rights, emphasizing that new technologies are too often used for surveillance, repression, censorship and online harassment, especially of vulnerable people and human rights defenders, and calling for these technologies to be used to provide new means to advocate, defend and exercise rights. Greater efforts are needed to develop further guidance on how human rights standards apply in the digital age, including through the Human Rights Council, and to build upon work by the special procedures and treaty bodies, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and diverse stakeholders.

40. There remains a need to address possible protection gaps created by constantly evolving digital technologies. In that regard, the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights provide a useful tool.

41. Blanket Internet shutdowns and generic blocking and filtering of services are considered by United Nations human rights mechanisms to be in violation of international human rights law. In addition to appropriate law enforcement, other means need to be found through consultation between Governments, industry and civil society, in accordance with international human rights law, including to deal with the spread of disinformation and, in particular, harmful, life-threatening content while avoiding disruptive blanket Internet shutdowns. 

42. Of particular concern are the areas outlined below, in which technologies can be, and increasingly are, used to violate and erode human rights, deepen inequalities and exacerbate existing discrimination, especially of people who are already vulnerable or left behind.


Data protection and privacy

43. Data protection has failed to keep up with advances in hacking and espionage. In 2019, more than 7,000 data breaches were recorded, exposing more than 15 billion records. 

44. Effective personal data protection and the protection of the right to privacy in line with internationally agreed standards are imperative. Human rights-based domestic laws and practices for the protection of data privacy, including enforcement mechanisms such as access to judicial review, or fully independent and well-resourced data protection authorities, are needed to address the use of data by private companies or Governments. 

45. The importance of protecting the right to privacy in the digital space and to take clear actions to do so is fundamental for private sector actors. More systemically, the current financing model for social media platforms effectively encourages the collection of personal data for commercial purposes, so that content and advertising can be more effectively tailored to individuals’ consumption patterns. Changes to this model will need to be considered in order to reverse the trend.

Digital identity

46. For over 1 billion individuals worldwide, their lack of recognized identification bars them from having access to basic goods and services. A “good” digital identity that preserves people’s privacy and control over their information can empower them to gain access to these much-needed services. Initiatives such as Identification for Development and the United Nations Legal Identity Task Force can help countries to realize the transformative potential of digital identification systems. 

47. It is nonetheless problematic that some digital identity programmes have been designed outside the frameworks of privacy and data protection. If digital identity is to become a trusted force for good and used for everyone, it has to be built upon a foundation of user agency and choice, informed consent, recognition of multiple forms of identity, space for anonymity and respect for privacy, ensuring that there is transparency when an individual’s data are used by government and other entities. 

48. The adoption of safeguards related to digital identity is critical for Governments and the United Nations as they strive to realize its full utility and potential while building trust in its use. This includes, for instance, efforts such as decentralized data storage, identification and authentication, encrypted communications and considering the incorporation of “privacy by design” principles. 

Surveillance technologies, including facial recognition

49. Researchers have observed that surveillance technologies have, in many situations, allowed for serious breaches of privacy, by Governments, individuals and the private sector. Surveillance technologies, where used in accordance with applicable international human rights law, can be effective law enforcement tools. However, there are reports of targeted communications surveillance and facial recognition software that could result in human rights violations and lead to arbitrary arrests or detentions and violation of the right to peaceful protest. These technologies may also misidentify certain minority groups and cement existing social biases, leading to situations in which marginalized people and members of minority communities may be more likely to be identified as the wrong gender or be discriminated against, for instance, in being denied loans. 

50. It is critical that legislation and safeguards are in place to protect people from unlawful or unnecessary surveillance, including any arbitrary surveillance that may be carried out by State actors in cyberspace, as well as in the physical world. Any such policies have to be fully in line with countries’ human rights obligations. This is relevant also for the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic: a careful and considered approach is required to ensure that responses are aligned with human rights obligations. 


Online harassment and violence and the need for content governance

51. In 2018, it was reported that women and girls were 27 times more likely to be harassed online than men. In addition to the impacts on health and dignity, the threat of online abuse is leading many women to “log off” of social media, perpetuating and entrenching inequalities in the space. They are joined by human rights defenders, environmental defenders, journalists, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons, young people, religious groups and civil society organizers in facing persistent harassment and violence online, including death threats, threats of sexual and gender-based violence and defamation and disinformation campaigns. Harassment and hate speech online can lead to physical violence offline. Increased digitalization owing to the current global health crisis has increased such threats. 

52. The Internet has to provide a safe space for information-sharing, education, expression, mobilization and participation. Addressing the legitimate concerns underlying the need for encryption without undermining legitimate law enforcement objectives is possible, along with human rights-based laws and approaches to address illegal and harmful online content. Member States and businesses, including cross-industry initiatives, should advocate transparent and accountable content governance frameworks that protect freedom of expression, avoid incentives for overly restrictive moderation practices and protect the most vulnerable. 


Recommendation 3C (artificial intelligence

53. Today, artificial intelligence is ubiquitous in its applications, ranging from navigation and content recommendations to being at the forefront of explorations of genome sequencing. Its use is forecast to generate nearly $4 trillion in added value for global markets by 2022, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, which experts predict may change consumer preferences and open new opportunities for artificial intelligence-led automation in industries, businesses and societies. 

54. Artificial intelligence can also significantly compromise the safety and