What is the future of global digital cooperation?

Disruptive technologies and evolving socio-economic challenges necessitate updates to the 20-year-old WSIS process

At this year’s Summit of the Future at the United Nations in New York, UN Member States will decide on global digital cooperation architecture for the years ahead.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and partner agencies are revisiting the 20-year legacy of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) as a source of insights and lessons on successful engagement on digital issues.

This week’s WSIS+20 Forum High-Level Event in Geneva, Switzerland, is reviewing the achievements and challenges since the multi-stakeholder WSIS process was established.

“The entire WSIS process has demonstrated flexibility and adaptive governance, with the Internet Governance Forum solidifying its role as the forum for global digital governance issues, and the WSIS Forum complementing this process by focusing on grassroots digital development through the Geneva Plan of Action and its Action Lines,” said ITU Secretary-General Doreen Bogdan-Martin in her first address to the WSIS participants.

Effective inclusion

Switzerland, chairing the WSIS+20 Forum, is calling for updates to strengthen WSIS going forward.

To date, WSIS’s “inclusive architecture has worked remarkedly well,” said Ambassador Thomas Schneider, WSIS+20 Chair Representative and Director of International Affairs at the Swiss Federal Office of Communication (OFCOM). “WSIS and the UN Internet Governance Forum offer mechanisms for our digital future. We are proud to co-host WSIS, which is inclusive of and accountable to all voices of all people to be heard in all processes of digital governance.”

The systemic development approach promoted through WSIS has empowered civil society groups to help drive sustainable, inclusive digital development.

“It enabled learning by integrating information and communication technology into education, food security and media freedom, from the grassroots to implementation,” said Anriette Esterhuysen, Senior advisor of global and regional Internet governance at the Association for Progressive Communications.

While the private sector is critical, concentration of asset ownership could widen existing digital gaps. “This is a challenge for developing countries. We need to put people first,” she added.

Evolving tech and strengthening values

Emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) have reshaped the landscape since WSIS started. Socio-economic priorities have also shifted.

“AI, the role of women in digital and environmental sustainability have changed, and we need to look at these in our next iteration of the WSIS action lines,” said Robert Opp, Chief Digital Officer at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), with digital programmes in over 120 countries.

“As we look at the WSIS+20 process, we need to put the fundamentals of putting people at the centre,” Opp said. “How do we work together to leave on one behind?”

Human rights, adopted as an international normative international framework over 75 years ago, is a key ingredient for governance online and offline.

“The digital cooperation world is a microcosm, it goes to the issues of equity, equality and human-centred, people-oriented ways of looking at things, it goes to the issues of human dignity and human agency. It goes to the world of what governance means, who has power and who do we give power to. It is fundamentally about our future,” said Volker Türk, High Commissioner at the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR. Human rights apply to the issues that we are discussing in the digital era. “We need to close the digital divide from a human rights perspective,” he added.

Ensuring coherence

Various UN platforms bring diverse stakeholders together for pragmatic cooperation.

“Multi-stakeholder and multi-lateral systems are complementary and should mutually reinforce each other,” said Swiss Federal Councillor Albert Rösti from the Federal Department of the Environment, Transport, Energy and Communications (DETEC).

The Geneva-based Internet Governance Forum (IGF) is another UN platform laying groundwork for the expected Global Digital Compact (GDC) later this year.

“We have seen increasing participation in the IGF, with 19,000 participants at the annual Meeting in Kyoto in 2023, and some 1500 of them were representatives of governments,” said Vinton Cerf, the Internet pioneer who chairs the IGF Leadership Panel. “The topics have dramatically increased, too. They are no longer only about the Internet, but digital technologies.”

Renata Dwan, Deputy in the Office of the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Technology, expressed appreciation for the “people-centred, inclusive, and development-focused” approach of WSIS.

“It will be a critical element of the Summit of the Future,” she added. The GDC is taking the three core concepts of WSIS forward in a framework for the future of emerging technology.”

The draft compact explicitly references human rights and uphold digital trust and safety.

It also tackles concentration of power, capacity and markets while promoting digital public goods and infrastructure.

“Now is the time to understand how WSIS and other UN processes, like the Global Digital Compact and the Summit of the Future, can complement each other,” Bogdan-Martin added.

About this week’s High-Level Event

The WSIS+20 Forum continues until 31 May.

Government ministers and officials from over 160 countries have joined representatives from the private sector, civil society, academia, the technical community, the UN System, and intergovernmental organizations to analyse trends in AI, sustainable space use, and other fast-evolving topics.

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