Digital co-operation: Can Geneva make it a win-win?

Author
Cedric Amon

The event was organised by the Graduate Institute in collaboration with the Club Diplomatique de Genève and the Geneva Internet Platform. The discussion was moderated by Ms Myret Zaki (Swiss Economic Journalist) and opened by Mr Philippe Burrin (Director of the Graduate Institute).

In his opening address, Mr Brad Smith (President of Microsoft) highlighted the challenges which technological advancements have caused throughout history and the opportunities they have offered Geneva to present itself as a place of dialogue and exchange. He recalled the creation of the International Red Cross Committee in 1863 which was founded after a gruesome battle in Northern Italy and laid the ground for the adoption of the Geneva Conventions. He indicated, however, that technological development did not stop and that each new technology required new answers. He noted that the International Humanitarian Law which protects civilians during times of war was created following the atrocities of World War II. He further noted that the current digital technologies will require new solutions considering that attacks are being carried out by governments against civil infrastructures during times of peace. The new forms of digital threats range from ransomware attacks to electoral manipulation – targetting civilians as well as governments – which is why Microsoft called for a Digital Geneva Convention to fill the policy and legal gap of the current frameworks. Smith stressed the importance of adopting new instruments, considering that today’s cyber-conflicts are mainly carried out from private domains. Thus, solutions cannot be multilateral but must be elaborated in a multistakeholder fashion, ‘The world needs a bold agenda that brings people together!’

Smith noted that we live in a time of contradiction where for the first time since the 1950s, we are witnessing strong nationalism and populism, all the while not living in economic conditions similar to those in the 1950s. Nonetheless, he recognised the strong disparities between the communities benefiting from new technologies and those who are not.

Smith further pointed out that, ‘We don’t spend enough time trying to understand the technological forces of our time and maybe spend too much time on the risks of technological developments.’ According to him, in order to enable private-public co-operation, both parties will need to learn much more about the economics of data. Actors must understand that, unlike gold or oil, data is created by us and is non-rivalrous, meaning that the same data can be used by many different actors. He mentioned that we will therefore need to find new approaches to sharing data, while protecting privacy and extracting the value out of it.

Moreover, Smith emphasised that although it is not enough to just give people access to digital technology, it is a very important step in enabling communities. He said that the role of governments is to stimulate the market to attract investments and further technological developments that will benefit local communities. In this regard, Smith warned against developing wire-based technologies and mentioned that wireless technologies, such as radio and mobile telephony, were adopted much more rapidly than wire-based systems such as cable television or wired Internet connections.

Ms Doris Leuthard (former president of the Swiss Confederation and former member of the High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation) noted that technological developments often surpass politicians’ capacity to regulate them. However, in order to create trust and confidence in digital matters, regulators must act and try to keep up with the rapid evolution of technology.

Leuthard announced the creation of a Swiss Digital Initiative in Geneva. The initiative will act as a platform for exchange between companies, academia, non-governmental organisations, and UN agencies, and will expand on the existing principles and ethical behaviours in cyberspace. The initiative aims to complement the recommendations of the High Panel on Digital Cooperation by creating an architecture for the new technologies and building trust and values in the digital sphere.

She mentioned that besides investments in infrastructure, governments should largely invest in education to prepare and train their citizens for new technologies. Leuthard also stressed the importance of multistakeholderism, while recognising the challenges for governments who are used to making these kind of decisions alone.

Mr Amandeep Singh Gill (former co-executive director, Secretariat of the High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation) said that one of the most pressing issues in digital matters was that by focussing excessively on the downsides of digital developments, we risk missing out on the opportunities created by them. He stressed the importance of implementing flexible and agile regulations in order to adapt to rapid technological developments. He highlighted the importance of multistakeholderism and noted that, ‘Inclusiveness is the best framework we have’.

Moreover, creating connectivity for all must be complemented by the creation of demand for new technologies, be it through access to digitally enabled finance, digital health, or agricultural improvements in order to make people realise the potential of digital technologies.

Singh Gill further noted that we need to move away from the concept of ‘owning data’ and adopt an understanding of ‘using data’. We should thus look at ways to create win-win platforms where data can be used and exchanged rather than owned. While recognising that this is not possible for all types of data, he said that it should be done wherever it is possible, to gain better insights into the mechanisms of data usage.

In his closing remarks, Mr Jovan Kurbalija (Head of the Geneva Internet Platform and DiploFoundation and former co-executive director, Secretariat of the High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation) highlighted the most important aspects of the debate. Kurbalija discussed the importance of understanding the different layers of the digital world, and the necessity of looking beyond the hype of new technologies. Additionally, he noted that we should not forget our long history in reconciling technology and humanity, and that Geneva in particular stands out as being ‘the place where technology meets humanity’.

Kurbalija further welcomed attempts to declutter the notion of data, indicating that the different types of data and their specificity require different approaches.

Moreover, he spoke about the creation of ‘help desks’ which would support people who are wondering were to go and whom to contact regarding their different digital grievances. He explained that this simple idea has the potential to reduce the level of confusion and increase trust in cyberspace and digital technologies. Finally, he introduced the notion of ‘informed optimism’ regarding new technologies: People should acknowledge the reality and current state of digital matters, but should not underestimate the potential of technological developments.

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