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IFANS Focus UN Agenda for Digital Cooperation and Korea’s Role SONG Tae Eun Upload Date 2021-06-02 Hits 625
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Ⅰ. UN and Digital Cooperation: Perspectives on and Various Approaches toward Digital Technologies 
Ⅱ. UN Agendas for Digital Cooperation and Initiatives
Ⅲ. Advancing Digital Cooperation: What is Korea’s Role in Building a More Effective Architecture for Digital Cooperation? 



The United Nations in recent years has assumed the role of an active agenda-setter in discussing the role of science and technology in reaching for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The UN has laid out a goal of using advanced digital technologies to achieve the SDGs by 2030 and limit negative impacts of new technologies and thus has made efforts to lead various international dialogues. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the ever-growing global influence of digital technology including Information and Communications technology (ICT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI), with the rapid spread of such technologies generating both opportunities and challenges. Against this backdrop, discussions on digital cooperation at the UN level could offer some guidelines the international community can draw on to advance efforts at bolstering cooperation in the digital space. 


Ⅰ. UN and Digital Cooperation: Perspectives on and Various Approaches toward Digital Technologies 

1. Widening Digital Inequalities: Intensifying Digital Divide 

The High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation was convened by the UN Secretary-General in July 2018 to advance proposals to strengthen cooperation on the use of digital technologies among Governments, the private sector, civil society, international organizations, academia, the technical community, and other relevant stakeholders. The Panel has given concrete shape to the UN’s approach to digital cooperation by facilitating open consultations and producing follow-up reports under the UN secretary-general’s name. The United Nations plans to appoint an Envoy on Technology to advise on ways to address challenges created by the development of digital technologies and support global initiatives aimed at advancing digital cooperation effectively and realistically. For starters, the UN has launched the Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Technology to coordinate the implementation of the Secretary-General’s Roadmap on Digital Cooperation in close consultation with the Member States, the technology industry, private sectors, civil society, and other stakeholders.

The United Nations publishes follow-up reports after holding annual debates on digital cooperation. In June 2019, the Panel launched its report, The Age of Digital Interdependence, and another report titled “Roadmap for Digital Cooperation” was published in the following year. This report, issued in June 2020, specifically mentions the emerging technologies the UN plans to use to achieve SDGs by 2030. In April 2021, Secretary-General of the United Nations António Guterres stressed that the 2020 Roadmap for Digital Cooperation offers a vision for a digitally interdependent world that “Connects, Respects and Protects” all people, and introduced the initiatives the UN has carried out to implement the roadmap. Secretary-General António Guterres called for action to conquer both the COVID-19 pandemic and the digital divide. Guterres made the call in his message to mark the World Telecommunication and Information Science Day, celebrated annually on May 17. According to him, information and communication technologies (ICTs) must be “a force for good” and “Digital technologies sustain life, work, health and learning for billions of people.

Apart from the high-level panel convened by the UN Secretary-General, Volkan Bozkir, the President of the UN General Assembly convened a one-day High-level Thematic Debate on Digital Cooperation and Connectivity on 27 April 2021. Stakeholders from governments, the private sector, international organizations, and many other international experts participated in the Debate to provide perspectives on how digital technologies, which have become an increasingly important part of our lives during the pandemic, benefit the international community. More than 70 nations spoke out on the theme “Whole-of-Society Approaches to End the Digital Divide” and discussions focused on how the lack of access to digital technology impacts the most underserved groups, economy, and society. 

Digital services enabled remote working and online education amid the pandemic, but such services were only available in environments where users could access the Internet and digital devices such as PCs and smartphones, further exposing how the world’s poorest nations and people living in poverty are suffering from the digital divide. The digital divide is not an issue confined to developing countries; vulnerable populations in the developed world such as the disabled, low-income households, farmers, fishermen, and the elderly also experience the so-called “digital lag” –  failing to learn and adapt to digital technologies - caused by digital disconnection and a lack of digital literacy. In addition, according to the 2021 "Inclusive Internet Index" released by The Economist Intelligence Unit, men are on average 14% more likely to have internet access than women, reflecting the deepening digital divide and digital literacy gap between men and women. 

Another major issue noted by the Panel and the High-level Thematic Debate is related to ethical issues associated with digital technology. Ethical issues arising from the development and use of AI algorithms are often unintended consequences; they are related to the distinctive features of algorithms powered by large quantities of big data that are often subjects of machine learning (ML) and deep learning (DL). Various information such as personal information, family information, financial information, health information, purchase details, and payment information, real-time location, search history, social media posts are the fuel that powers AI systems. Algorithms fed by data limited in both volume and scope of diversity, however, tend to produce biased outcomes; they often create unfair outcomes for disadvantaged individuals and groups or result in racist profiling. Therefore, critics argue that algorithm-based decision-making systems designed to replace human judgment are incomplete and dangerous. In addition, as digital devices are becoming increasingly inseparable from our daily lives and intelligent surveillance technology has spread rapidly around the world in the wake of the pandemic, privacy issues including personal information misuse and abuse that occur in the process of collecting, processing, and disposing personal information are proliferating. Discussions, therefore, are underway on the protection of personal data using legal and institutional frameworks. 

In this context, Microsoft's White Paper “Closing the Digital Divide: A Human-Centered Approach to Connectivity” issued on behalf of IT companies at the High-level Thematic Debate offers perspectives and feasible approaches that align with those of the UN and charts a path forward for the digital technology market. Microsoft called on the UN to exercise leadership in mobilizing concerted multi-stakeholders and coordinating their actions to meet the international community’s ambitious goals to connect the unconnected. Also, Microsoft opened its representation office to the United Nations (UN) in New York to support the UN’s leadership role. 

In addition, a joint statement titled "Leave No One Behind: A People-Centered Approach to Achieve Meaningful Connectivity" was adopted at the Thematic Debate. The statement laid out detailed visions on how governments, industry, multilateral institutions, civil society, and international financial institutions must work together and lead the way for concerted action to close the digital divide by 2030; invest in affordable technology solutions; empower people everywhere; mobilize new financing models to reach the unconnected and protect the most vulnerable online. The statement also says the UN must ensure all people have access to affordable internet-enabled devices, the necessary digital skills, literacy, and tools needed to access a safe, secure, and empowering Internet, one which provides access to information, basic public services (e.g., education, health). 


Ⅱ. UN Agendas for Digital Cooperation and Initiatives

The United Nations has called on the UN's various organizations including the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), the Office of the Secretary-General's Envoy on Technology, and the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) to work together and play a central role in facilitating global digital cooperation. The UN's digital cooperation agendas can be summarized as “global connectivity,” “digital public goods,” “digital inclusion,” “digital capacity-building,” “digital human rights,” and “digital trust and security.” 


1. Global Connectivity and Digital Capacity-Building

To close the digital gap, the UN is creating a global dialogue to discuss investment models that will ensure affordable access to digitally enabled services and ways to finance them. The United Nations is also supporting other projects aimed at increasing connectivity, such as the “GIGA Initiative” pushed forward by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the UNICEF as part of an effort to discover a "transformative model" to address the digital divide. About 800,000 experts from 19 countries participate in the GIGA initiative, and more than 3,000 schools in Kenya, Sierra Leone, Kazakhstan, and Brazil have been connected to the internet through this initiative. Also, the UN TechBank and the Technology Facilitation Mechanism (TFM) are playing a crucial role in advancing the UN's efforts to achieve the SDGs. 

The United Nations is working in close collaboration with the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC), a global network of organizations that work together to provide shared communications services in humanitarian emergencies. The UNDP and ITU are serving as information centers while facilitating a comprehensive approach to strengthening digital capacities and plan to launch a multilateral network to further connect their initiatives with SDG agendas.


2. Digital Public Goods

The United Nations is exploring how the use of ICT and AI can contribute to the well-being of humankind with various stakeholders such as UN member states and the world’s largest tech giants. Open-source software, AI models, and digital contents are the results of such actions made by the UN and other stakeholders, and these initiatives stress the importance of digital public goods as a means to achieve the SDGs. The United Nations is currently paying attention to how big data and AI technologies and proved useful in monitoring new disease outbreaks and blocking racist content and disinformation. 

The United Nations also aims to utilize real-time data predictive analytics based on open-source solutions to enable successful pandemic response and provide quality education to students despite school closures. To attain this objective, the UN is working closely with the Digital Public Goods Alliance (DPGA), a network of state agencies, international organizations, and private organizations created to unlock the full potential of digital public goods. 

UN-affiliated agencies are also actively participating in various digital cooperation initiatives led by the UN. The Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) recently launched a report titled New and Emerging Technologies in Humanitarian Action to highlight the advantages of new technologies and some complex challenges and risks that come with them and present a feasible roadmap. And to support people-centered smart cities, UN-Habitat launched the UN Innovation Technology Accelerator for Cities (UNITAC) in Hamburg, Germany, with multiple countries. 


3. Trustworthy AI and Digital Human Rights

In reaction to the 2013 revelation by Edward Snowden detailing mass surveillance by US National Security Agency, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on the right to privacy in the digital age in December 2013. Another encouraging development was the establishment of a UN Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy. The resolution called on states to respect and protect the right to privacy, and review procedures, practices, and legislation related to electronic surveillance, interception of digital communications, and collection of personal data. 

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights plans to evaluate the impact of new technologies on human rights, human dignity, and autonomy and prepare related guidelines to apply them to the entire UN system. Trustworthy AI is an agenda broadly shared by many international organizations, including the United Nations and the OECD. And multinational tech companies like Amazon.com, DeepMind, Google, and Facebook have already set guidelines for developing, using, and managing AI, based on principles like fairness, inclusion, reliability, explainability, safety, and transparency, and accountability. Tech giants have voluntarily prepared these guidelines with a vision of developing Artificial Intelligence technologies that benefit humanity, which is deemed as an attempt to avoid any possible criticism of regulations that could obstruct their future efforts to innovate AI technologies.  


Ⅲ. Advancing Digital Cooperation: What is Korea’s Role in Building a More Effective Architecture for Digital Cooperation? 

Currently, discussions and activities related to digital technology at the UN are focused on solving digital divide issues, developing AI technologies that benefit humans, and achieving sustainable growth, and countries, institutions, businesses, and civic groups are participating in these such global initiatives and conversations. Against this backdrop, Korea, a global tech powerhouse, should contemplate pursuing diplomatic initiatives and agendas to ask ourselves what we can contribute to UN-led efforts at advancing digital cooperation. 

The Korean government plans to introduce a “new technology and human rights” resolution at the 47th U.N. Human Rights Council to be convened in June 2021, and the government must constantly explore main areas of focus and support research efforts to build a more effective architecture for digital cooperation. Also, Korea must join forces with the U.S., countries in the Asia-Pacific and Europe by engaging in digital governance diplomacy, which addresses a wide array of issues including the development and use of digital technologies to improve people’s well-being. With the tech rivalry between the U.S. and China reaching new heights, Korea’s digital governance diplomacy should be able to contribute to establishing a rule-based global order that guides the development and use of new technologies. 

The World Telecommunication Development Conference (WTDC) will be held in November 2020 on Connecting the Unconnected to Achieve Sustainable Development in Addis Ababa. The World Food Program (WFP), the ITU, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are forming working groups to provide communications services in humanitarian emergencies. To keep pace with these encouraging developments, Korea needs to actively work together with many institutions and stakeholders and join the international community’s efforts to design innovative models that boost digital cooperation. 

Digital cooperation is not always necessarily related to sustainable growth agendas emphasized by the UN, such as the well-being of humanity and the creation of public goods. Advances in digital technology have a profound impact on industrial growth, economic development, and competitiveness, so countries are scrambling to achieve innovation and develop a competitive edge. On top of that, technological advances tend to generate various problems, and countries’ efforts to develop and harness digital technologies often spark tensions. The global race for AI, in particular, is also affecting the way the issues surrounding digital technology are raised, and democratic nations including the U.S. and the EU are facing a series of challenges related to advances in digital technology, namely normative and accountability issues. South Korea has been experiencing the same problems. 

Furthermore, the U.S.-China technological race has intensified as the two sides strive to propel themselves to global leadership in areas from 5G, semiconductors, data, cybersecurity, and future wars featuring autonomous weapons systems. And the growing impact of technological advances on the economy and national security has pushed countries to form tech and intelligence alliances to counter threats posed by a rival bloc. In other words, the intensifying trade war between the U.S. and China is now accelerating a technology decoupling between the two powers. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on March 12, 2021, designated five Chinese companies Huawei Technologies Co, ZTE Corp, Hytera Communications Corp, Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology Co, and Zhejiang Dahua Technology Co. as posing a threat to national security under 2019 Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Act. With President Joe Biden in office, the tech rivalry between the U.S. and China and tensions surrounding security issues will likely spill over into a clash over human rights issues and democratic values, accelerating the formation of rival blocs racing for technology leadership. 

South Korea can tap into its rich pool of expertise and ample experience to meaningfully contribute to concerted efforts by governments and stakeholders worldwide to advance digital cooperation in a way that aligns with human-centered, human-empowering digital technologies and initiatives pursued by the UN. With the global race for technological supremacy accelerating, Korea should map out detailed strategies and well-established principles to advance its national interests in a way that safeguards human rights and democratic values as a country with a long track record of upholding such values.


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