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Navigating the Promise and Pitfalls of the UN’s Global Digital Compact Initiative

The United Nations has embarked on a bold initiative in an era influenced by digital technologies. In September 2021, the UN Secretary-General released a report in which lay a proposal for a Global Digital Compact (hereinafter: GDC or initiative). This new initiative could be agreed upon at the Summit of the Future in September 2024 through a technology track involving all stakeholders: governments, the United Nations system, the private sector with the tech-mammoths, civil society, academia, and individuals. The GDC “outlines shared principles for an open, free and secure digital future for all” and is expected to improve international digital cooperation. The GDC could be a blueprint for regulation issues like digital connectivity, Internet fragmentation, data governance, privacy, and online human rights, alas it has the potential to reshape the Internet as we know it now.

The Global Digital Compact Zero Draft was published on 1 April 2024, stating, „Digital technologies are dramatically transforming our world. They offer immense potential benefits for the wellbeing and advancement of people, societies, and for our planet.” UN Member States are expected to complete negotiations on the final draft of the GDC by the end of June 2024.

Once approved in September 2024, the GDC would be the first international document on a shared approach to governing digital technologies. It seeks to harness the transformative power of digital technologies for sustainable development while mitigating the associated risks.

The initiative seeks to catalyze dialogue and cooperation to address the digital revolution. At its core, it aspires to establish common norms, standards, and principles that uphold fundamental rights, promote innovation, and foster digital inclusivity. To better understand the GDC, it is worth looking at its seven most important advantages and disadvantages.

Pros:

1. Enhanced global cooperation: Perhaps the most salient advantage of the GDC lies in its potential to engender greater cooperation and synergy among nations and stakeholders. It facilitates the exchange of ideas, best practices, and resources by providing a platform for dialogue and collaboration, thereby fostering a collective response to shared digital challenges. The collaborative nature enhances the legitimacy and efficacy of digital governance efforts globally, serving the platform governance triangle.

2. Holistic approach to digital governance: Unlike piecemeal approaches that often characterize digital governance efforts, the GDC adopts a holistic perspective that acknowledges the interplay between various dimensions of the digital ecosystem. By addressing issues such as data privacy, cybersecurity, digital rights, and access to technology in an integrated manner, the initiative promotes more robust and sustainable solutions that resonate across diverse contexts.

3. Promotion of digital inclusion: A cornerstone of the initiative is its commitment to advancing digital inclusion, particularly in marginalized and underserved communities. By advocating for equitable access to technology, digital literacy programs, and affordable connectivity, the GDC seeks to fight the digital divide and empower individuals and communities. As Benedicta Ehimuan et al. put it: „Digital inclusion is not just about access to technology; it is about empowering individuals and communities to thrive in an increasingly digital society.”

4. Strengthened cybersecurity: With the proliferation of cyber threats and vulnerabilities, the initiative provides a strategic framework for collective action to safeguard critical digital infrastructure, bolstering global security and stability. By promoting information sharing, capacity building, and joint initiatives, the GDC strengthens the collective defense.

5. Fostering innovation and economic growth: Another compelling aspect of the initiative is its potential to catalyze innovation and drive economic growth. By promoting an enabling environment for digital entrepreneurship and innovation, the GDC can unlock new opportunities for job creation, especially in sectors such as TMT, e-commerce, and digital services.

6. Facilitating access to education and healthcare: The GDC could facilitate access to education and healthcare, particularly in remote and underserved areas. Digital technologies enable the delivery of online education and telemedicine, breaking down geographical barriers and expanding access to quality learning and healthcare services.

7. Supporting sustainable development and climate action: Digital technologies can support sustainable development and climate action by enabling more efficient resource management, monitoring environmental indicators, and facilitating collaboration on global challenges. From smart energy grids to precision agriculture, digital innovations offer solutions to address pressing environmental issues.

Cons:

1. Challenges of implementation: Despite its laudable objectives, the successful implementation of the GDC is fraught with challenges. Coordinating stakeholders’ diverse interests, priorities, and agendas with disparate backgrounds and motivations necessitates adept diplomacy and institutional mechanisms. Moreover, the sheer complexity of navigating regulatory landscapes across jurisdictions poses formidable hurdles to seamless execution. The risk of bureaucratic inertia, conflicting mandates, and resource constraints further complicates the implementation process, potentially undermining the effectiveness and sustainability of digital governance initiatives.

2. Risk of fragmentation: In a global ecosystem characterized by divergent regulatory frameworks and policy paradigms, there is a palpable risk that the initiative may inadvertently exacerbate fragmentation rather than foster convergence. Without robust mechanisms for reconciling conflicting interests and harmonizing disparate standards, there is a looming danger that the GDC could engender a balkanized digital landscape marked by regulatory arbitrage and jurisdictional discord. Moreover, rigid regulatory frameworks may hinder the agility and flexibility required to adapt to emerging technologies and evolving digital challenges. Regulatory interventions that prioritize short-term stability over long-term innovation could inadvertently impede the growth of nascent technologies and entrepreneurial ventures, stifling creativity and inhibiting economic growth.

3. Potential for power imbalance: Despite its aspirations for inclusivity, the GDC may inadvertently perpetuate power imbalances within the digital ecosystem. As with many international initiatives, there is a risk that influential stakeholders, such as dominant tech companies or wealthy nations, could wield disproportionate influence over decision-making processes, marginalizing the voices of smaller players. This imbalance could undermine the initiative’s legitimacy and effectiveness, leading to outcomes that prioritize the interests of the powerful few over the needs of the broader global community.

4. Privacy concerns and data exploitation: In an age of pervasive surveillance and data exploitation, privacy and data protection concerns are constantly growing. The initiative’s emphasis on leveraging digital technologies for development must be balanced with robust safeguards to protect individuals’ privacy rights. However, achieving this balance is difficult, particularly with the constant changes in data analytics and artificial intelligence.

5. Digital rights and freedom of expression: While the GDC affirms the importance of digital rights, questions remain about its effectiveness in safeguarding freedom of expression and online dissent. In many parts of the world, governments are increasingly resorting to censorship and surveillance to stifle dissent and control the flow of information online.

6. Environmental sustainability and digital footprint: Another pressing concern is the environmental impact of our increasingly digitized world. While digital technologies promise efficiency and productivity gains, they also have a significant carbon footprint. From energy-intensive data centers to electronic waste, the proliferation of digital technologies contributes to environmental degradation and climate change.

7. Digital disinformation and manipulation: In an era of information overload and social media-driven narratives, combating digital disinformation and manipulation has emerged as a critical challenge. The spread of fake news, misinformation, and online manipulation campaigns threatens democratic governance, public discourse, and social cohesion. While the GDC recognizes the importance of promoting digital and media literacy, more robust measures are needed to counter the proliferation of disinformation and ensure the integrity of online information ecosystems.

Based on the advantages and disadvantages, it’s essential to consider the nuanced dynamics shaping the global digital landscape. While the GDC holds promise in fostering collaboration and coherence, it must navigate a complex terrain marked by divergent interests, power dynamics, and technological disruptions.

One of the initiative’s critical challenges is reconciling the tension between innovation and regulation. Striking the balance between supporting innovation and mitigating risks requires a delicate interplay of regulatory frameworks, industry standards, and societal values. Failure to navigate this balance effectively could stifle innovation, hamper economic competitiveness, and undermine public trust in digital technologies.

Furthermore, the initiative must grapple with the evolving nature of digital threats and vulnerabilities. The interconnected nature of the digital ecosystem amplifies the impact of cyber threats, ranging from data breaches and ransomware attacks to disinformation campaigns and digital espionage. The GDC must address the asymmetries in cybersecurity capabilities and capacities across different regions and sectors, ensuring that no one is left behind in the digital defense efforts.

Another pressing challenge facing the initiative is the imperative to uphold digital rights and freedoms in an increasingly surveilled and controlled digital environment. As governments and corporations wield unprecedented power over data and digital infrastructure, there is a growing risk of encroachments on privacy, freedom of expression, and other fundamental rights. The GDC must champion transparency, accountability, and user empowerment principles to safeguard digital rights and prevent the consolidation of authoritarian control over cyberspace. Additionally, it must confront the digital divide, ensuring that marginalized communities have equal access to digital resources and opportunities.

In conclusion, the Global Digital Compact initiative represents a seminal milestone in the journey towards forging a cohesive framework for digital governance in an increasingly interconnected world. While it promises to enhance global cooperation, foster digital inclusion, and strengthen cybersecurity, it also confronts formidable challenges such as implementation complexities and the risk of fragmentation. Nonetheless, with unwavering commitment, visionary leadership, and sustained collaboration, it harbors the potential to shape a digital future that is equitable, secure, and prosperous for all.


Gergely Gosztonyi is a habil Associate Professor at Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE), Faculty of Law. His research interests include global regulation of social media, censorship, deepfake, alternative media, and intermediaries’ liability. He has been an expert for the Council of Europe, the National Media and Infocommunications Authority, and the National Talent Centre. He is an editor of several law journals and has published over 170 articles in Hungarian and international law journals.

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