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.