Chapter Sixty-Eight: Our Common Agenda, Co-operation and Connectivity

In a previous issue of TypeRight, we had covered the Internet Governance Forum's brief history, why it came into place and how it is relevant today. Now, several years after the first IGF by the United Nations, we look at the Global Digital Compact.

António Guterres, the Secretary General of the UN, in his Nelson Mandela Address, is quoted saying: “Looking to the future, two seismic shifts will shape the 21st century: the climate crisis, and digital transformation.”

He further goes on to talk about the gender domination in tech, and how algorithmic biases entrench existing inequalities. Digital Technology must be enabling and equalising.

"And as technology transforms our world, learning facts and skills is not enough. Governments need to prioritize investment in digital literacy and infrastructure. Learning how to learn, adapt and take on new skills will be essential. The digital revolution and artificial intelligence will change the nature of work, and the relationship between work, leisure and other activities, some of which we cannot even imagine today. The Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, launched at the United Nations last month, promotes a vision of an inclusive, sustainable digital future by connecting the remaining four billion people to the Internet by 2030. "

On the 75th anniversary of the United Nations, the Secretary General detailed a report called Our Common Agenda, highlighting what needs to be done in the next 25 years. (The full report can be read here)

The seventh point of the Agenda reads, "Improve Digital Cooperation", which suggests the global digital compact to -

• Connect all people to the Internet, including all schools

• Avoid Internet fragmentation

• Protect data

• Apply human rights online

• Introduce accountability criteria for discrimination and misleading content

• Promote regulation of artificial intelligence

• Digital commons as a global public good

Our team who was in Ethiopia for the Internet Governance Forum last month also got a chance to speak to Amandeep Singh Gill, the UN Secretary-Gerneral's Envoy on Technology. The following part is from that conversation.

While the the 18th SDG is considered by many to be almost invisible, whether it is poverty alleviation or agriculture, food security, health, education, manufacturing, or creating jobs, it plays a crucial and enabling role. It works similarly for issues of asymmetry of power in governance, such as gender inequality or aspects related to good governance. The UN Envoy on technology mentions that it is important to address digital issues as a part of that collaborative international agenda-setting.

But what is the point of these consultation meetings across different countries?

Primarily, it raises awareness of this issue and makes it a priority for policymakers. "Finance Ministries, in particular, have to see this as a priority and view investment in the internet not just as a dead cause but as a multiplier for social and economic progress." The initiative also hopes to bring people together from the private sector, government, international organizations and others to build connectivity.

It would also brainstorm on how to leverage technologies, like the new and emerging satellite-based connectivity solutions, to bridge the last-mile gap. The 2020's version of the digital radio from several decades prior.

(The full interview between Jenny S, Tuisha S and Mr Amandeep Gill is here)

Jenny: DEF has been working in India for 20 years. We have been setting up the internet in unconnected areas and establishing these centres through which access to government services can be made available to the rural population. So at present, we are present in around 24 states. Right now, like many people are also getting connected, we have also been moving to focus on data rights for communities, data justice, working around those issues, and having consultations and meetings with other stakeholder organizations. The objective of this conversation is to get some idea about your perspective on countries like India, access and connectivity, and to learn a little about the global digital compact and its mission. So the first question is that we have the Millennium Development Goals and the Sustainable Development Goals. What is different about the Global Digital Compact, and what are the learnings from the previous common agendas contributing to this proposed concept?

Amandeep: Thank you. So the agenda 2030 that you refer to has 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). And next year, we will review progress in the mid-term between 2015 and 2030. So that's a separate process aligned with what the Global Digital Compact is about. Let me explain why. 

Many think digital is almost an invisible SDG, the 18th SDG. So, whether it is poverty alleviation or agriculture, food security, health, education, manufacturing, or creating jobs, digital can play an enabling role in all of these areas. Also, concerning some of the SDGs that are related to issues of asymmetry of power in governance, such as gender inequality or aspects related to good governance, digital again can play a role. In any case, these are powerful technologies that can also negatively impact the progress of the SDGs. Therefore, it's important to address digital issues as a part of that collaborative international agenda-setting. 

The Global Digital Compact is to be adopted in 2024. It will be the first time when at the leader's level, there will be a focused discussion on digital issues and an attempt to come together and adopt some norms and guiding principles for an open, free, secure, and inclusive digital future. While these are two different processes, they have implications for each other and are mutually supportive. 

Tuisha: Thank you. I want to ask a general question about the internet and the role that the internet is playing in democracy in today's time. So, when the internet came, there was a lot of hope around how democracies themselves could be reimagined. But in recent years, many critical discourses on datafication have come up, which also focus on surveillance or, like, control of data by the government, by the market alike. For instance, even Aadhar in India has been criticized a lot in that regard. A lot of biometric technologies are being criticized. So, in that case, how do you think within a multi-stakeholder approach, internet and population data tags such as the usage of biometric technology can remain a tool for good governance without harming people? 

Amandeep: That's a very important question. We cannot be lying about the aspect of misuse of digital technology, misuse of the internet. Therefore, adopting these technologies at scale has to be accompanied by some guard rails. In the case of digital identity, which is a precious tool for inclusion and accessibility, we have to be mindful of a few things. One is that these identities should not lead to any discrimination on the basis of birth, ethnic origin, religion, etc. They should be purpose limited, and their main objective is to authenticate that you are you and nothing more. The other important consideration is that these should be supported by legislation, so if they are legislation based, it's much better. They should be developed through wide consultations and run by independent authorities so that they cannot be manipulated to undermine democracy or undermine the rights of a particular set of people. 

In the high-level panel on digital cooperation's report 2019, some of these considerations were laid out, and I am delighted to see that an effort has been made by, for instance, Mospid, which is an open-source project around digital identities to develop on the basis of the lessons learnt from Aadhar. Other countries can then adopt these modeller pieces in their context. 

That's the kind of direction we would like to support rather than the sort of misuse, slippages, etc., that can come when you combine digital technologies with other characteristics, such as biometrics or other forms of personal identification. 

Jenny: The next question concerns connectivity and the gaps in connectivity. For example, we have been attending sessions on interplanetary communication in IGF here. On the other hand, in places like India and Africa, a lot of people are not connected to the internet at all. So, how do you view this contradiction and what are the plans of, having multi-stakeholder engagements, in the future to bridge this gap?

Amandeep: Right. One of the goals of these meetings is to raise awareness of this issue and make it a priority for policymakers. Finance Ministries, in particular, have to see this as a priority and view investment in the internet not just as a dead cause but as a multiplier for social and economic progress. That's one big objective for these meetings. The other is to bring people together from the private sector, government, international organizations and others to build connectivity. So, for instance, the Partner to Connect coalition by the International Telecommunications Union, supported by my office and other organizations, has launched an example of that kind of partnership building which is also collecting commitments.

At last count, it was close to 25 billion in commitments by different actors to build connectivity. And the third is leveraging technologies, especially emerging satellite-based connectivity solutions, to bridge the last mile gap, rural connectivity. In the 1980s, when I was an engineer, I remember we used to build digital radios for rural telephonic connectivity. So, now it is time to have such innovative technology to bridge the connectivity gaps. There will be other gaps such as the gender gap, the rural-urban gap for which you will need to have connectivity plus type of approaches on the demand side and some of the cultural barriers to this. But this is what I suggest regarding addressing the connectivity gaps of at least 2.7-2.9 billion people today. 

Tuisha: The last question is rather personal. So, being at the fleet of the UN Secretary General's envoy on technology, do you have a vision of how technology can be harnessed to empower humanity as a whole and not one person less? 

Amandeep: Absolutely. I would not be in this role if I lacked the passion and vision for leveraging Digital Technologies for Sustainable Development. Human beings are at the centre of development. Development, in a sense, is the expansion of human capacity. And Digital Technology is offered as an opportunity to expand human capacity while being mindful of the slippages, risks and unintended consequences. Through the Global Digital Compact and our other initiatives, if we are going to be able to change the direction today, ten years later, we can look back and see that we were able to turn Digital Technologies in the direction of empowerment of individuals, of societies and not in the direction of delusions and further concentration of power. 

The Digital Empowerment Foundation, now having worked 20 years in the country to bring connectivity to the marginalised populations, are actively participating and working on mobilising the voices of the unheard for the GDC work in India. On March 4th next year, we are working on organising a consultation in New Delhi for the Global Digital Compact in India. Follow us here, and on Twitter to keep up with the updates on the Global Digital Compact.

In Other News

In another instance of enforcing Aadhaar for welfare schemes, this is a recent news from Tamil Nadu:

Continuing on our coverage on EdTech, this update from Byju's:

Also, if you've followed our last week's piece on Twitter, you might want to read this - and learn how to switch to the open-source, decentralised social network that Elon Musk has blocked links of on Twitter:

Updates from DEF

We at DEF are celebrating twenty years of our organisation's working with communities towards digital empowerment! We'll be back next week with detailed coverage of twenty years of our work.

That’s it from us this time! Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! See you next year!

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TypeRight - The Digital Nukkad

TypeRight - The Digital Nukkad, is a weekly conversational bulletin curated through the news and discussions on social media as well as what's happening on the ground. Through the eyes and ears of Digital Empowerment Foundation across rural India and global south, TypeRight aspires to focus on bringing the contextual relevance of digital technologies and developments on the society - both connected and unconnected.