Why the Global Digital Compact is worth your time

By Moira Whelan | March 02, 2023

Large Photo
Small Photo
Moira Whelan

The news on technology and democracy continues to be grim. Freedom on the Net tells us that internet freedom continues to be in decline. Governments continue to shut down the internet with impunity. Online hate speech fuels riots around the world. Surveillance technology continues to proliferate allowing for easier targeting of activists. 

The fight for a democratic internet is everywhere. Meanwhile at the United Nations, an effort is underway to ask big questions about what our digital future should look like. The Global Digital Compact promises to “outline shared principles for an open, free and secure digital future for all”. Between now and March 31st, the UN Tech Envoy’s office is welcoming submissions from the public on what this should be as well as hosting open sessions on big topics like youth, climate change and political participation. After March, a draft will be prepared and in September, UN member states will start a year-long process of hashing out the details. In September of 2024 at theSummit for the Future” it will be the big reveal. 

Can a bureaucratic global process like the Global Digital Compact help create a digital ecosystem that is democratic and works to empower democracy?  Or will we chart a course for more shutdowns, hate speech and surveillance because of what’s in it…or what’s not? 

Let’s state the obvious up front: we don’t know. But we know a few things. First, the UN has proven to be the main mechanism by which Internet Freedom issues have been elevated and confirmed globally. It is through the UN that we consider access, free expression, and digital privacy to be human rights.

Of course, this has been little deterrence as the numbers show us. The implements of digital repression are still a go-to in a would-be dictator’s toolbox. 

Authoritarian actors–some even in professed democracies, and all with a voice in the United Nations–have stated their intention to put control of the internet into the hands of governments once and for all. Citing issues like “national security,” and “protection” and preserving “culture” are code for taking management of technologies out of the hands of multi-stakeholder systems–the secret sauce for upholding democratic norms–and into the hands of a few at the very top. In practice this means that governments can meet in small closed rooms to decide on giant tech infrastructure projects with no transparency on who is paying for them and where personal data goes, and no one can even point to a rulebook that says that that is bad. It means that if your identity could be the basis for not letting you vote, have an opinion, or be jailed (or worse) for sending a text, no global framework would have your back. 

We also have the chance to put issues on the table we’re just beginning to grapple with, like the metaverse and GPT-3, and not play catch up. Old questions about who holds a country accountable for manipulating technology and how we achieve consistency while respecting national and local laws still linger as well. It’s a chance to iterate on what works and what doesn’t using the analog version of human centered design: a multi-stakeholder process. 

Putting this in context, the Global Digital Compact is just one entity within the UN system that is looking at technology issues. Parts of the UN do this in real time, all the time. This year, the Commission on the Status of Women is taking on Technology and UNESCO has initiated a vibrant debate about a model framework for social media regulation. All of these efforts will fold into the Global Digital Compact, but each one represents a fault line between definitions, control of the process and a threat to the UN’s definition of a free, open, global internet. Harmonizing these things takes input from everyone around the world. 

So why is this worth YOUR time and not just someone else’s? Our research shows us a few things: 

First, we need more experts–particularly from the majority world–to know and understand the policy debates and to influence them. If you’ve used a computer or phone for work, school, or life, that’s certainly you. (And the UN is working to hear from those who don’t have digital access because they matter too). Participation will change the dialogue from one being run out of Silicon Valley, Washington, and Brussels (or Beijing and Moscow) and turn the conversation about the future of the internet into a global conversation. 

Second, this conversation forces people outside of their niche issues. We’ve noticed that there is often a divide between civtech communities and those focused on gendered abuse. Internet regulators and citizens groups observing elections may cross paths only once every few years, if ever. Developers have thoughts on data transparency and accessibility that differ from researchers. Wrestling with these challenges needs to happen, and we simply have no better place for it to occur right now. 

Third, forcing ourselves to look beyond what’s wrong and focus on what works helps elevate solutions we can scale. The ROAM Principles (Rights. Openness. Accessibility, and Multistakeholder) have allowed us to measure openness. The cooperation between technology companies and NCMEC (National Center for Missing and Exploited Children) has not only led to arrests, but creates a pre-emptive mechanism that increases safety. When we think about what’s wrong, we also force ourselves to think about what needs to be done to fix it. 

Fourth (and admittedly more of a qualitative assessment): Do you honestly think authoritarian actors won’t take advantage of this opportunity to push for more power? 

So what feels like a small drop in the bucket–taking time to participate–can have an impact. It’s true, we don’t know what the result will be, but we know it will be something that will influence the conversation moving forward. As social media has taught us, you can’t influence a conversation you’re not part of and when you use your voice, you can make change. Democracy demands speaking up and if we want an internet that is democratic, this is your chance. 

You have one month left. Set your reminder.