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U.N.'s Digital 'Roadmap' Underscores Global Implications of Digital Divide

As if defining the "digital divide" weren't fraught with enough complexities, the United Nations has stepped up its commitment to resolve access inequities worldwide. The U.N.'s "Roadmap for Digital Cooperation," which is being unveiled this week, lays out key global issues such as digital connectivity, human rights, trust and security that are necessary for making digital services available worldwide. The plan envisions the creation of new global coalitions and alliances, while acknowledging the challenges of unveiling the project during a global health and financial crisis.

"Digital divides reflect and amplify existing social, cultural and economic inequalities," the Roadmap report says. "The gender gap in global Internet use is a stark example – in two out of every three countries, more men use the Internet than women."

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is unveiling the "Roadmap for Digital Cooperation" in a series of virtual events. He describes it as the output of a two-year-long project to establish concrete steps and potential mechanisms for global digital cooperation. The Report also identifies critical gaps in the way global technology governance is developed, including a lack of common metrics and definitions.

Ajay Banga, Mastercard CEO

Ajay Banga, Mastercard CEO

Mastercard Chief Executive Officer Ajay Banga, who is also First-Vice Chair of the International Chamber of Commerce, is among the global corporate executives evangelizing the U.N. digital plan this week.

“In the next 2-3 years, the continued deployment of 5G, the proliferation of [Internet of Things], the expansion of cloud and edge technology and the explosion of Artificial Intelligence will have tremendous impact on the ways we conduct business, educate our youth and secure our borders, both physical and virtual," Banga said in remarks accompanying the Roadmap release. "But we can’t have an Internet of Everything without the Inclusion of Everyone. And we won’t achieve that unless we work together to build the system, foster use, offer access, protect it and support its growth.”

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At a global livestream video conference today  (Wednesday, June 17), global telecom policymakers will focus on new financial models to provide affordable, universal connectivity to the Internet by 2030, in keeping with the "Roadmap"'s goal. Today's event is run by the UN High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation, the International Chamber of Commerce and Chatham House. Speakers include Marietje Schaake, International Policy Director, Cyber Policy Center at Stanford University (and a former Member of European Parliament), Maria Fernanda Garza, Chair; Executive Board Member of Global Networks Committee and Regional Coordinator for the Americas of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), plus Fabrizio Hochschild, Special Adviser to the U.N. Secretary-General.

An International Chamber of Commerce spokesperson said that, "The global health crisis has fast-forwarded digitalization across all sectors as well as amplified its core challenges. It has also further accentuated the gaps in connectivity and digital access within, and between, countries as participation in social, political and economic activities are now mainly facilitated by digital infrastructures and internet access."

In a preview event late last week, World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee said that the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated “the gross inequality” of a world where almost half the population is unable to connect to the internet, emphasizing that "our number one focus must be to close the digital divide.” Berners-Lee focused on the 3.5 billion people who have "missed out on the lifeline that the Internet has provided" to enable work, education and social connections online.

Gates, Ma Led Two-Year Analysis

Secretary-General Guterres convened a 20-member "High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation" in July 2018, co-chaired by Melinda Gates of the U.S. and Jack Ma of China, with participants from the private sector, government agencies, academic institutions, the technical community and other relevant stakeholders. The Panel submitted its “The Age of Digital Interdependence” preliminary report a year ago, offering five sets of recommendations on how the international community could work together to optimize the use of digital technologies and mitigate risks.

In addition to governments and non-government organizations, corporate participants in the project included Cisco, Google, Microsoft and Facebook.

In particular, this week's final report emphasizes the need for "digital inclusion" to "ensure that the voices of those who are not fully benefiting from digital opportunities are heard." It also sets forth plans for the U.N. Secretariat and other U.N. entities to begin a "mapping exercise of digital inclusion initiatives, mechanisms and programmes ... to develop action plans to improve digital inclusion." It also proposes efforts to increase "digital capacity"

Despite its lofty visions for global connectivity and the services it will provide, the U.N. Roadmap has scant details about how the expansion will be financed. The U.N. says it "is ready to serve as a platform for multi-stakeholder policy dialogues on the emerging technologies."

"Member States, the United Nations and other stakeholders can amplify these global initiatives by deploying digital public goods as part of their immediate efforts to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic," the Report says in a timely acknowledgement of current conditions.

"To accelerate this movement," Secretary-General Guterres said, "I welcome the formation of the Digital Public Goods Alliance and ask it to continue to work closely with other emerging digital public goods initiatives."