It is sometimes hard to believe that over a decade has passed since the emergence of digital platforms, given how ubiquitous they are now. As Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and others, powered up their networks with global reach capabilities, regulators have increased their focus on digital policy and technology. This year, the debate about the impact of digital technologies will kick up a notch as artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality, and technologies that enable the Internet of Things (IoT) are front and centre at two key global conferences.
Two conferences to watch for
The UN’s specialised agency for ICTs, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), will be hosting two meetings that will debate policy issues central to the governance and regulation of social media platforms and the treatment of digital technologies. These discussions will reflect the growing pressure from consumer groups, political parties, and numerous multistakeholder interests to develop a new codex of policies, constraints, and regulations around these technologies.
First up will be the ITU World Telecommunication Development Conference 2022 (WTDC-22), which is scheduled to take place in Addis Ababa during June 6-15, 2022. This will be followed by the ITU’s 2022 ITU Plenipotentiary Conference (PP-22), in Bucharest, which is scheduled for September 26 to October 14, 2022. Each of these global conferences takes place every four years and will shape the discussion parameters around the key issues surrounding social media platforms and digital technologies.
Both conferences will see strong participation from the private sector through their individual memberships in the ITU, as well as the presence of national delegations. The conclusions from these meetings also shape regional and national agendas around these issues. Engagement in these ITU processes is critical, as both private sector and government experts will vigorously put forward proposals to shape the outcome.
Social media platforms
The issues surrounding social media platforms will be particularly difficult. A number of countries are expected to put forward draft resolutions and recommendations to shape UN policy around privacy, security, and children online protection. These issues will be augmented with concerns regarding the power and reach of major social platforms and calls for greater scrutiny and the imposition of remedies to address anti-competitive behaviour.
Companies will need to be ready to respond to these potentially far-reaching regulatory instruments that will be under discussion. Calls for action by concerned groups and stakeholders will push these discussions to adopt prescriptive language in the published outputs of the conferences that could severely impact company interests for years to come. Engagement creates the opportunity that the outputs will ensure UN policy will be more balanced, but all companies need to be cognizant of a changing ecosystem – a post-pandemic world where greater scrutiny and heightened expectations for corporate social responsibility will be the norm.
The second set of issues will be around digital technologies. As noted earlier, AI, virtual and augmented reality, and a broad array of IoT devices and applications will be an area of great interest to both ITU conferences. Driven by 5G deployments, these technologies will be ripe for greater and deeper scrutiny. Emerging economies are expected to show heightened interest in the use and potential misuse of these new digital technologies. If managed appropriately, they hold great promise for jobs growth and macroeconomic expansion.
This will also drive discussion around infrastructure, fit for purpose regulations, and appropriate policies that protect consumers but retain incentives for investment. Collaborations across sectors to fund rural projects through public-private partnerships are also expected to generate considerable discussion. Flexible regulations drawing in both existing and new stakeholders into an enabling environment will draw favourable reactions and lay the groundwork for future studies across the ITU and beyond.
Adopting a ‘whole governance’ approach for digital cooperation can form the central core of future regulations across multiple regional and global platforms. If successful, it will considerably lessen the pressure to apply heavy top-down regulations. instead, it will lead to new models of co-regulation and more stable and longer-term positive solutions for both governments and consumers.
Adoption by the UN of fair and ethical practices will lead to a sustainable ecosystem that encourages new business models, spurs investment, and protects the rights of all stakeholders. The two ITU global conferences of 2022 will provide the opportunity to put this approach into practice and to arrive at new and forward-looking policy frameworks for the future.
- WTDC-22 and PP-22 will see the UN take great strides towards more involvement in shaping policy outcomes for a rapidly changing technology policy ecosystem.
- Governments and companies will work together to enable technical innovation and innovative thinking and develop guidance on policies and regulations to address citizens’ concerns around social media platforms and the use of new digital technologies.
- The UN conferences will see the nascent emergence of a ‘Fair Tech’ framework that provides a roadmap to assist companies in navigating the complex technology policy issues and develop regulatory and compliance practices that achieve fair outcomes for citizens, governments, and companies.
- Competition issues will emerge at the UN level and a wider range of countries will aim to address concerns with social media and technology using competition policy. Companies with regional or global operations should focus on understanding the landscape and develop long-term strategies that are flexible and consider a wide variety of stakeholders.
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