Every third week of September, global attention shifts to the United Nations Assembly Hall. Heads of state descend upon New York to outline their countries’ views on international issues, and to signal their diplomatic priorities for the next 12 months. Once again, we provide an analysis of the digital issues covered by the speeches.
This year, the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, set the tone by including digital issues alongside top priority issues such as climate change and crisis management. Trust ‒ or rather, the lack of trust ‒ provided the context for what is ailing today’s world: what Guterres described as ‘a bad case of “trust deficit disorder”.
Trust is also diminishing in the digital sphere. The risk of weaponisation of artificial intelligence (AI), the growing misuse of technology by criminals, and the widening gender gap in digital access are some of the issues highlighted in the Secretary-General’s speech, and in the work of the High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation which he established in July. Yet, there was hope that things can be improved. In both the offline and online worlds, trust can be rebuilt.
Most national statements which reflected on digital issues ranged between focusing on opportunities (digital technology as an engine of social and economic progress) and focusing on risks (digital technology as amplifying the risks for a secure modern society).
Mapping the countries’ statements
Our map compares the references to digital issues with last year’s statements, and provides an in-depth coverage of the digital-related issues mentioned by the countries.
In addition to countries, references made by the UN Secretary General, President of the 73rd Session of the General Assembly and the European Union can be found here.
In comparison to last year’s study, our analysis of this year’s statements revealed the following trends and patterns:
Digital issues were increasingly prominent. A total of 63 statements, compared to last year’s 47, tackled digital aspects. The coverage ranged from the simple mention of digital technology, to more in-depth elaboration of concrete proposals.
This year saw an increase in debates on digital risks, compared to the more positive digital opportunities which were predominant in last year’s speeches. Cybercrime, violent extremism, and the risks posed by the uncontrolled growth of AI featured highly in the statements. A total of 20 heads of states raised specific concerns about security issues.
Regional differences were noticeable in the framing of digital risks and opportunities. Only ten African states mentioned digital aspects. Their main focus, rather, was on the potential of digital technology for economic growth and employment. Statements from Europe offered a more prominent coverage of the risks of digital developments. Reflections on more balanced risks and opportunities could be found in the speeches of heads of states from Asia and Latin America.
Lastly, there was the noticeable absence of digital coverage in the statements of two of the major digital powers, the USA and China. President Trump did not make any reference to digital issues,while Minister Wang Yi mentioned the matter only in the context of national security and the fight against terrorism.
Apart from digital aspects, the most of statements this year focused on the following:
- The state of multilateralism (the crisis, the risks, and ‘negative multilateralism’)
- Reform of the UN
- Unresolved crises (such as in Yemen, Syria, and Myanmar)
- Progress in crisis management (successes included the Djibouti Agreement between Eritrea, diplomatic relations between Ethiopia and Somalia, and the Singapore Summit between the USA and North Korea)
- Climate change (adherence to the 2015 Paris Agreement and the 2019 UN Climate summit)
- Migration (a mention of the Global Compact and Conference in Marrakech)
- Sustainable development.
The issues in detail
In terms of security, most nations are concerned about rapidly growing cybercrime rates, the rise of small arms trade through digital platforms, and the spread of terrorism through digital means. In addition to these threats, the EU and other leaders of European countries mentioned dangers arising through misinformation as well as political interference and meddling in electoral processes.
Estonia and Slovakia warned against the risk of underestimating digital security risks. Slovakian president Andrej Kiska said that malicious activities in cyberspace are ‘as dangerous as any conventional threat’.
Russia reiterated its plans to propose two draft resolutions; one regarding the responsible behaviour of states in cyberspace as well as a draft resolution for a universal convention on countering cybercrime. Cuba warned against the militarisation of cyberspace and condemned the illegal use of new technologies to attack other countries.
Infrastructure and economic aspects
Challenges mentioned by the members of the UN General Assembly also referred to disruption of labour markets through digital technologies and challenges faced by younger populations in relationship to these disruptions (Croatia). In light of these developments, the Secretary-General said: ‘Governments may have to consider stronger social safety net programmes, including, possibly, universal basic income.’
India and Malta referred to the major digital opportunities: from advanced robotics and AI, to 3D printing and the Internet of Things. States should prepare for, and embrace, the new changes of this age. The sentiment was echoed by India, as well as by different African countries such as Namibia, Botswana, the Kingdom of Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland), and Sierra Leone, who spoke about their investments in the digital economy as a promising avenue for growth.
This year again, the silence and absence of statements regarding digital issues were noteworthy. While China only briefly alluded to the topic of cybersecurity and the fight against online terrorism, the USA avoided the topic entirely. From the US side, this is an interesting trend as it follows last year’s speech during which President Trump only referred to ‘new forms of aggression exploit[ing] technology to menace our citizens’.
Brazil, which was previously more outspoken about digital issues and had left out this topic in 2017, only alluded to digital topics. President Temer mentioned the role and importance of new technologies in the context of international trade and cross-border flows.
Internet of Things (IoT)
The Internet of Things (IoT) includes a wide range of Internet-connected devices, from highly digitalised cars, home appliances (e.g. fridges), and smart watches, to digitalised clothes that can monitor health. IoT devices are often connected in wide-systems, typically described as 'smart houses' or 'smart cities'. Read more
Cybersecurity is among the main concerns of governments, Internet users, technical and business communities. Cyberthreats and cyberattacks are on the increase, and so is the extent of the financial loss.
Yet, when the Internet was first invented, security was not a concern for the inventors. In fact, the Internet was originally designed for use by a closed circle of (mainly) academics. Communication among its users was open. Read more
Cybercrime is crime committed via the Internet and computer systems. One category of cybercrimes are those affecting the confidentiality, integrity and availability of data and computer systems; they include: unauthorised access to computer systems, illegal interception of data transmissions, data interference (damaging, deletion, deterioration, alteration of suppression of data), system interference (the hindering without right of the functioning of a computer or other device), forgery, fraud, identity theft. Read more
Cyber-attacks can have a background in international relations, or bring about the consequences that can escalate to a political and diplomatic level. An increasing number of states appear to be developing their own cyber-tools for the defense, offence and intelligence related to cyberconflict.
The use of cyber-weapons by states - and, more generally, the behavior of states in cyberspace in relation to maintaining international peace and security - is moving to the top of the international agenda. Read more
It is frequently mentioned that the Internet is changing the way in which we work. ICTs have blurred the traditional routine of work, free time, and sleep (8+8+8 hours), especially in multinational corporation working environment. It is increasingly difficult to distinguish where work starts and where it ends. These changes in working patterns may require new labour legislation, addressing such issues as working hours, the protection of labour interests, and remuneration. Read more
E-commerce has been one of the main engines promoting the growth of the Internet over the past 15 years. The importance of e-commerce is illustrated by the title of the document that initiated the reform of Internet governance and established ICANN: the 1997 Framework for Global Electronic Commerce, which states that ‘the private sector should lead’ the Internet governance process and that the main function of this governance will be to ‘enforce a predictable, minimalist, consistent, and simple legal environment for commerce’. Read more
Economic - other issues
The impact of the Internet on businesses and the global economy has been crucial in shaping new economic models, and at the same time, raising new concerns.
The Internet is one of the primary drivers of economic growth, which is visible in many countries that have placed the development of ICT as one of the primary tools for boosting the economy. Read more
Internet access is growing rapidly, yet large groups of people remain unconnected to the Internet. As of 2015, about 43% of people had access to the Internet (in developing countries only 34%). Access to ICTs is part of the Sustainable Development Agenda, which commits to ‘significantly increase access to ICTs and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020’ (Goal 9.c). Read more
Development - other
The need for people to gain access to ICT resources and narrow the digital divide is crucial, and is especially relevant now in the light of the Sustainable Development Goals. It is also important to understand how access to the Internet affects the level of economic and social development in a country. Read more
Researchers: Cedric Amon, Amrita Choudhury, Andrijana Gavrilović, Su Soniah Herring, Nataša Perućica, and Virdžinija Saveska.
Visualisation: Nataša Perućica.