UN-appointed panel calls for cooperation to harness benefits, avoid harms of digital technologies

An expert group called on governments, the private sector, and civil society to work together urgently to maximize the benefits and minimize the harms of digital technologies.

An expert group appointed by the United Nations called on governments, the private sector, and civil society, in its first report released Monday, to work together urgently to maximize the benefits and minimize the harms of digital technologies.

The Age of Digital Interdependence, the 20-person panel co-chaired by Melinda Gates and Jack Ma, laid out recommendations to that end, including developing human and institutional capacity, protecting human rights and human agency, and promoting digital trust, security and stability.

In building an inclusive digital economy and society, the panel recommended every adult by 2030 have affordable access to digital networks, as well as digitally-enabled financial and health services.

It suggested a multi-stakeholder alliance, involving the UN, create a platform for sharing digital public goods, and that international organizations promote actions on barriers women and marginalized groups face to digital inclusion and equality.

It also suggested an initial goal of marking the UN's 75th anniversary in 2020 with a global commitment to digital cooperation for an improved global digital cooperation architecture. "As part of this process, we understand that the UN secretary-general may appoint a technology envoy," said the report.

Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Ma, executive chairman of the Chinese conglomerate Alibaba Group, on Monday morning had an online conversation with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, whom they handed the report to, on digital cooperation.

Guterres recalled that the growth of the internet began with a "naive optimism," but that inequalities have actually grown. He called for digital technology to be used for a "quantum leap" in global development, and for everyone to have access to the internet.

Without a huge commitment to and investment in digital inclusion, he said, conflicts and mistrust will grow.

Ma encouraged governments to attach greater importance to investment in digital infrastructure. "If you don't let your people connect to the Internet, it is worse than in the last century ... We should not leave our people in the last century," he said.

With today's global sale, buying, delivery and payment, the internet is empowering lots of small businesses and young people, Ma said, promoting more inclusive globalization.

Gates insisted that women must have a "seat at the table, as the creators of society," saying that women entrepreneurs currently receive just 6 percent of venture capital funding for digital start-ups.

Regarding fears of inadequate internet governance, Gates said it is a legitimate concern, but that the technology sector is coming together to self-govern and collaborate. Smart regulation, nevertheless, is also necessary to solve problems, she added.

"Inclusion in the digital age is at the heart of the report," said Nikolai Astrup, Norwegian minister of digitalization and member of the panel, on Monday, stressing that the most vulnerable -- the poor, women, people with disabilities, and political and ethnic minorities — should not be left behind.

"We can't win the fight against extreme poverty and inequality unless we ensure that everyone has affordable access to internet and fundamental literacy and digital skills needed to take advantage of this access," he said.

"The report is not the end of anything," said Chief Internet Evangelist for Google Vint Cerf. "It's the beginning of a dialogue."

The distribution of the offline population is all over the world, not concentrated in certain countries or regions, he said.

He urged the rectification of the situation as "the rate at which digital technology is flowing into use and the dependence that we are putting on it is significant and growing."

On Monday afternoon, the UN General Assembly heard a briefing on the report.

Acknowledging the rapid pace of technological change, Guterres said the digital technology can both advance and cause disruption to the UN's mission of peace, human rights and sustainable development.

Urging member states to study it, he hoped the report will stimulate "an urgent and open debate between governments, the private sector, civil society and others on how we move forward together safely in the age of digital interdependence."

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