UN General Assembly: What to Expect in Digital Policy

UN General Assembly: What to Expect in Digital Policy

Our Common Agenda’, published on September 10, outlines a vision for the UN over the next 25 years, addressing sustainability, multi-stakeholder cooperation and an array of digital issues. It also offers a preview of some of the pressing topics that will be discussed over the next two weeks in New York.

Based on this report, the Secretary General will appoint a High-Level Advisory Board, led by former Heads of State and Government, to identify aspects of global governance where reform is needed. The work of the High-level Advisory Board will culminate in a ‘Summit of the Future’, to take place alongside the High-Level Week of the 78th UNGA, 2023. Leading up to the summit, the UN will host a series of preparatory events and consultations.

The report is divided into 12 ‘commitments’, each of which lists several proposals aimed at accelerating the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals. Digital inclusivity, universal access and online human rights are just a few themes tackled throughout the report, highlighting the UN’s focus on the future of digital technology.

Notably absent from the report is any reference to cybercrime or cybersecurity, a topic that has been at the forefront of state’s minds following a massive increase in cybercrime and cyberattacks during the pandemic. The reason for this exclusion seems to stem from harsh push back received from member states following the release of the Secretary General’s Digital Road Map, viewed by some states as an attempt to usurp the authority of the OEWG.

Global Code of Conduct

With the aim of arresting the growing lack of trust in public information, the UN Secretariat hopes to establish a global code of conduct. This initiative, to be facilitated by the UN, will invite the private sector, regulatory bodies, and Member States to explore ways of regulating digital commons, defined in the report as a global public good that should be appropriately governed.

Global Digital Compact

Furthermore, the report calls for the establishment of a Global Digital Compact on shared principles for the digital future, highlighting issues such as internet fragmentation, accountability criteria for discrimination, data protection, and the regulation of AI.

The UN invites governments, civil society and the private sector to join a multi-stakeholder digital technology track in preparation for the Summit of the Future, during which Global Digital Compact will be agreed. The Global Digital Compact is one of eight ‘high-level tracks’ established in the report.

Outer Space Dialogue

Another high-level track, the Outer Space Dialogue, will be a multi-stakeholder effort to address congestion in space and develop instruments to prevent the weaponization of space. The report calls for a global regime to coordinate space traffic and implement principles for a sustainable and peaceful outer space.

Human Rights Online

Human rights in the digital world feature prominently in the Common Agenda, especially a proposal that frames universal access to the internet as a human right: this could reshape how we think about connectivity globally. There is a further proposal calling for the application of human rights to emerging technologies, which may influence the development of frameworks around AI.

The desire expressed by the report to make fuller use of human rights treaty monitoring systems also has deep implications for the tech sector, as this will place pressure on states to apply greater scrutiny to the practices of tech and digital services firms.

Tax and Trade Systems

A proposal calling for the reformation of the international tax system calls for several changes to be considered, including taxing the value of the digital economy and a ‘digital development tax’, which would, in theory, tax technology companies in order to accelerate expanded connectivity.

The Common Agenda also includes a proposal to create an improved multilateral trading system under the leadership of a reinvigorated WTO, including reinstating a dispute settlement mechanism. The report promotes improved flexibility in intellectual property rights and technology transfer to create a fairer trade system.

Transforming Education

The UN Secretariat will convene a ‘Summit on Transforming Education’ in 2022 to address themes such as digital inclusivity, as well as the transition from education to employment. Bringing together the private sector, civil society and Member States, this summit will establish a roadmap for improving education.

UN-level Reforms

Finally, the launch of ‘United Nations 2.0’ was announced. This is a major initiative to transform the UN, enabling it to face global challenges inherent in the growth of digital technologies. The Secretariat has proposed that the Trusteeship Council, suspended since 1994, be repurposed for this mission. The new Trusteeship Council would be a multi-stakeholder body tasked with addressing emerging challenges on behalf of future generations. The UN Office for Partnerships, a part of the Secretariat, will lead a coordinated attempt to engage with the private sector and civil society. The report calls for all UN entities to establish dedicated focal points for civil society involvement, managed through the Office for Partnerships.

Our Common Agenda is both a long-term vision for the UN and an action plan for the next two years ahead of the Summit of the Future. Upcoming workstreams will provide companies with many opportunities for engagement in the coming years.

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