‘Bridges across digital divides’ needed to boost development, Guterres tells G20

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With the right national policies, digital technology can give “an unprecedented boost to sustainable development”, particularly for the poorest countries, the UN chief told the G20 Summit in Bali, Indonesia, on Wednesday.

“This calls for more connectivity; and less digital fragmentation. More bridges across digital divides; and fewer barriers. Greater autonomy for ordinary people; less abuse and disinformation”, Secretary-General António Guterres underscored during a session devoted to the theme of Digital Transformation.

From the suppression of free speech to malicious interference across borders, and the online targeting of women, he spelled out that “without guidance and guardrails”, digital technology has “a huge potential for harm”.

To counter this, he proposed that during the UN Summit of the Future, in September 2024, governments should endorse a Global Digital Compact for an “open, free, inclusive and secure digital future for all” – with input from technology companies, civil society, academia and others.

Firmly anchored in human rights as “the only coherent approach for a technology that affects every aspect of our lives”, the UN chief elaborated on the three areas outlined in the Digital Compact.

First, he explained that universal connectivity means reaching the three billion people who still have no access to the internet, the majority of whom live in the Global South.

“We must close the digital divide by promoting digital literacy and giving access to the digital world to women and girls, migrants, rural and indigenous people.”

Secondly, Mr. Guterres reminded that a human-centred digital space begins with the protection of free speech, freedom of expression and the right to online autonomy and privacy.

“But free speech is not a free pass”, he argued, saying that the Digital Compact must consider the responsibility of Governments, tech companies and social media platforms to “prevent online bullying and deadly disinformation that undermines democracy, human rights and science”.

The top UN official also called for a global code of conduct that promotes public information integrity to enable people to “make choices based on fact, not fiction”.

Finally, he observed that data has “immense and unexplored potential” to boost sustainable development.

However, while we have only half the data needed to understand progress and measure impact regarding the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), people’s personal data is being used without their knowledge and consent, “sometimes for political control, sometimes for commercial profit”, Mr. Guterres maintained.

He said the Digital Compact should focus on ways in which governments, working with technology companies and others, could foster the “safe and responsible use of data”.

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