Digital on the agenda of the the UN General Assembly’s 75th session

In the past four years since we had followed digital policy issues on the agenda of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), digital has never failed to make the cut. It did not fail to do so this year either.

Delegations pledged to improve digital co-operation in the Declaration on the commemoration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the UN. The declaration puts ‘shaping a shared vision on digital co-operation’ and ‘addressing digital trust and security’ as priorities, because we are relying on digital technologies more than ever.

This is why the 2020 High-Level Week at the UN saw a series of events on digital co-operation organised by the international community. For example, the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the Cybersecurity Tech Accord, the UN Office of Disarmament Affairs (UNODA), and more. The events addressed harnessing the power of data and digital technologies for health transformation, protecting human rights during the COVID-19 pandemic, leveraging digital technologies for sustainable development, and others. Read out reports from a selected number of events here

In the third week of September 2020, heads of states and governments, as well as ministers of foreign affairs, delivered pre-recorded statements from their respective capitals. This year was different from others we had followed because of the Commemoration of 75 years of the UN segment. A total of 113 countries sent pre-recorded statements for this segment. As expected, most delegations focused on the extraordinary circumstances under which the 75th session was convening. However, 17 of them mentioned digital technologies, mostly in the development context. Taking into account that the speeches were only supposed to be three minutes long, it is logical that many countries had other, more pressing concerns to fit into the three minute slot.

Even if most attention was dedicated to the COVID-19 pandemic, during the High-Level segment, 76 out of the 176 statements delivered mentioned digital policy issues in 2020. According to our previous research, 47 statements tackled digital issues in 2017, 63 in 2018, and 84 in 2019. It’s interesting to note that 2018 was the year in which UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, included digital issues alongside top priority issues on the agenda, yet this year we have observed 13 more statements tackle digital issues. However, this is the first year in which we have seen a decrease of the number of statements mentioning digital issues compared to the previous year – to be more precise, in 2020, 8 statements less dealt with digital issues than in 2019. This is despite the vow to improve digital co-operation. This also might be contrary to our expectations that more countries would be concerned with digital policy issues as we have ‘shifted most of our lives online’.

The COVID-19 pandemic was often mentioned in the same context as digital policy issues. National delegations argued that the pandemic accelerated the use of and access to information communication technologies (ICTs), in particular for younger generations and financially vulnerable communities.

Others, on the other hand, pointed to the emergence of negative trends associated with digital technology, such as the spread of fake news and misinformation, dubbed as an ‘insidious but less obvious pandemic’, as well as propaganda and online hate speech.

The most prominent digital issues at UNGA75

We have conducted data analysis of all statements to identify the most frequently mentioned digital policy issues based on the taxonomy used by our Digital Watch observatory.

Most mentions of digital issues were made by European states (51), followed by South American (25) and Asian (22) states.

Issues that belong to the development basket such as the digital divide, access to ICTs and capacity development were the most prominent: they were mentioned by close to one-fifth of the countries from almost all regions. These issues were mainly brought into the discussion by national representatives of developing countries who called for urgent measures to bridge the digital gap. Noting that the digital divide has been further aggravated by the transition to online education and teleworking, developing countries, such as the Gambia, Tonga, and Nepal, see ending the digital gap as one of the most urgent priorities. In addition to creating equal opportunities to realise a ‘fair share of benefits of e-commerce and technology dividend’, member states also need to develop strategies to reskill and upskill their population for the future of work. It is worth noting that, for many countries, the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the digital transformation of the public sector. Some delegations, including Estonia and Slovenia, noted that digital technologies and platforms have enabled the continuation of public services, payments, and business activities. Others referred to the importance of secure digital identities in ensuring equal access to digital public services. Along these lines, Latvia shared its success story of creating the world’s first fully functional e-parliament. 

Cybersecurity came in second place with a total of 25 states addressing issues such as cybercrime, cyberwarfare, and child safety online. Croatia and the Czech Republic referred to the increase in cyber-attacks during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially against critical infrastructures such as healthcare institutions, and the worrying practice of cyberwarfare. Several countries, including Singapore and Slovenia, stressed the importance of a trusted cyberspace underpinned by international law, and norms of responsible state behaviour.

The digital policy issues from the infrastructure basket made 21 appearances, and were mostly referred to by European delegations, which focused on artificial intelligence (AI) and other advanced technologies, like 5G, and nanotechnology. For example, Spain, Czech Republic referred to applications of AI in many sectors in their respective countries such as healthcare, transportation, agriculture, and environment. Romania, Slovenia, and the Holy See pointed to an urgent need to address the challenges posed by AI with the aim of developing technology that is human-centred and based on ethical principles.

Lastly, the human rights basket was the least popular with a total of 7 mentions, despite the fact that privacy concerns and freedom of expression were often addressed in the context of COVID-19 crisis.