Baby Steps Towards a Global Digital Compact: Reflections on the Zero Draft

By Chris Buckridge.

This post probably won’t age well.

That’s the risk in commenting on a document so unambiguously labelled a “Zero Draft” – the push and pull of multilateral negotiations will significantly alter the document before any final agreement is reached, relegating this draft (and this blog post!) to the status of historical artefact.

But for those who’ve been swept along in the process to develop a United Nations Global Digital Compact (GDC), the recent publication of a Zero Draft feels like a major milestone, and a first sense of what such a compact might look like. Moreover, it provides important insight into how that process has gone thus far – what impact can we see from the stakeholder consultations and Member State inputs? – and where we might expect it to go from here. For the incurable optimists among us, it’s a moment to hope that we might help steer the coming negotiations in a positive direction and fulfil the ambition laid out by the Secretary-General in his original vision.

And “ambitious” is an appropriate characterisation of this draft – starting with the five objectives set out by the Co-Facilitators, which are unashamedly expansive:

  1. Close the digital divides and accelerate progress across the Sustainable Development Goals;
  2. Expand opportunities for inclusion in the digital economy;
  3. Foster an inclusive, open, safe, and secure digital space;
  4. Advance equitable international data governance;
  5. Govern emerging technologies, including Artificial Intelligence, for humanity.

The draft then lays out 10 principles that are equally all-encompassing, intended to guide the “digital cooperation” that will allow us to achieve the compact’s objectives. Reading through these principles, the Co-Facilitators’ responsiveness to some of the ideas and suggestions aired in the past year’s consultations is evident. For instance, at the public consultation session during last December’s UNCTAD eWeek, the Co-Facilitators’ acknowledged the absence of environmental sustainability in the original GDC concept and the calls from stakeholders to include it – the draft now commits that digital cooperation should “leverage digital technologies for sustainability and minimize their environmental impact.”

Perhaps more notably, the importance of a multistakeholder approach to digital cooperation has been recognised as a foundational principle – it’s worth quoting here the full text of the draft’s tenth and final principle:

(i) Multi-stakeholder: Governments, the private sector, civil society, the technical community, academia and international and regional organizations have roles and responsibilities in advancing an inclusive, open, safe and secure digital future. Our cooperation will involve all stakeholders, according to their respective mandates, functions and competencies;

This is an important commitment, reflecting not only the feedback of many stakeholders and States in the formal consultation process, but also the outcomes of the 2003-2005 WSIS process and the ten-year review of WSIS in 2014. It’s also encouraging to see that the extensive list of stakeholder groups explicitly includes the technical community, a point of concern raised last year by several technical community representatives and organisations. Finally, the construction of the concluding sentence is interesting, as “respective mandates and competencies” is more often used in relation to cooperation between different UN agencies (see the WSIS+10 Outcome Document), so there is a move away from the traditional “respective roles and responsibilities” language employed in the Tunis Agenda and the WSIS+10 outcome document. Nevertheless, the foundation is there for further strengthening the multistakeholder approach as a fundamental principle in digital cooperation.

The draft is structured around the five objectives, detailing specific strategies, commitments, and initiatives in aid of each, often grouped according to subject matter clusters (as per the table below).

Notable in the text are the linkages made throughout to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with many paragraphs highlighting the relevance of the commitment or initiative described to specific SDGs. This connection back to the UN’s flagship development framework is unsurprising and potentially useful particularly in the context of an impending review of the SDGs themselves; it’s also an interesting parallel to efforts over recent years to link Internet Governance Forum session proposals to specific SDGs (though it’s unclear how effective that has been in practice).

What is perhaps more surprising in this draft is the number of new structures and processes proposed. These include:

  • A UN Digital Human Rights Advisory Service (Objective 3, Cluster 1)
  • An intergovernmental multistakeholder process coordinated by the UN Statistical Commission and the Commission on Science and Technology for Development (Objective 4, Cluster 2)
  • An International Scientific Panel on AI (Objective 5)
  • A Global Fund for AI and Emerging Technologies for Sustainable Development, “financed by voluntary contributions from public, private and philanthropic sources” (Objective 5)
  • A dedicated office in the UN General Assembly secretariat for coordinating digital and emerging technology (Follow up and review section)

In addition, the draft proposes two new events:

  • An annual global dialogue on AI governance (Objective 5)
  • A 2-yearly High-Level Review of the Global Digital Compact (Follow up and review section)

Others can speak with more insight to the wisdom and need for each of these structures and events, but there is an important overarching context to the GDC negotiations (indeed, all UN negotiations): the UN’s current liquidity crisis, which has already seen UN premises shuttered, travel and events cancelled, and staffing frozen. While the GDC draft does not reference these challenges (and there is no suggestion that it should), they will inevitably have an influence on negotiations, as States consider the viability of what they are being asked to sign onto. The Zero Draft has laid out a smorgasbord of options; it will be for negotiators to whittle the GDC down to those priorities that can be met within current resource constraints.

This leads into the draft’s discussion of Internet governance and follow up and review of the final compact, where there’s an opportunity for greater clarity and concision. Again, looking through these sections of the draft, the Co-Facilitators have heeded the call to more explicitly acknowledge the WSIS process and its outcomes. This includes the annual Internet Governance Forum, which has evolved to comprise a year-round schedule of intersessional work and strong links to a global network of national and regional Internet governance initiatives. This is only logical, given the extensive networks created by the WSIS process, not just between the various UN agencies responsible for the WSIS Action Lines, but via the IGF to stakeholders, both public and private, throughout the world.

It’s on this network that the UN can and should lean in the complex task of follow up and review to a GDC and the many commitments that will likely make it through the final negotiations. The WSIS “family” of agencies and institutions provides an important source of relevant experience and expertise, while embodying the GDC’s multistakeholder principle via the UN’s preeminent multistakeholder institution, the IGF.

Further evolution of the WSIS and IGF structures and processes will be required – nothing new for institutions that have been evolving for nearly 20 years, and some practical suggestions have already been provided by the Chairs of the IGF Leadership Panel and its Multistakeholder Advisory Group in their letter of October 2023 to the Co-Facilitators – and there remain resourcing challenges that need to be addressed (particularly the stability and sustainability of the IGF’s funding). But with the looming WSIS+20 review, the opportunity to coordinate efforts is fortuitous.

The Zero Draft’s current proposal for follow up and review, while acknowledging the WSIS processes and the IGF, suggests establishing a new office (or potentially re-purposing the current Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Technology) to be responsible for “UN system-wide coordination on digital and emerging technologies”, and a “High-Level Review of the Global Digital Compact”, to be held every two years under the auspices of the General Assembly, and “with the participation of all relevant stakeholders”.

It’s hard not to hear echoes here of the earlier proposal for a new Digital Cooperation Forum, but the fulsome text of the Zero Draft itself serves to make the point: the likelihood of overlap and duplication with the IGF and WSIS processes would be significant. At a moment of constrained finances, of growing institutional complexity regarding digital issues and Internet governance, and with an ongoing commitment to the multistakeholder approach (in this draft, at least), it makes little sense to spin up new structures. What there may be is a need to consider what is required and how the existing structures can be evolved to meet those needs. And as has been made clear, those institutions stand ready to be part of that process.

It is clear that there is still some way to go in this process, and I count myself among the incurable optimists who think that, even as multilateral negotiations commence, non-state actors can help steer this effort towards an outcome that may actually achieve its lofty ambitions. As a multitude of community-based webinars, dedicated multistakeholder meetings, and blog posts spring up in the coming weeks, I hope that UN Member State delegates (and our trusted Co-Facilitators) are listening!