The Global Digital Compact we want

By Anriette Esterhuysen.

This article does not reflect the views of all global South civil society organisations. It reflects the views of the author but it also does draw extensively on inputs into the Global Digital Compact (GDC) process presented by the Association for Progressive Communications, a network of civil society organisations from around the world – mostly based in the global South – that has been working with UN processes dealing with technology and sustainable development since the Earth Summit in 1992.

On 12 December 2003, at the conclusion of the first phase of the World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva, United Nations member states declared their “common desire and commitment to build a people-centered, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society, where everyone can create, access, utilise and share information and knowledge, enabling individuals, communities and peoples to achieve their full potential in promoting their sustainable development and improving their quality of life, premised on the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and respecting fully and upholding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).”1

Civil society participants in the WSIS process released their declaration, “Shaping information societies for human needs”, just a few days earlier. It expressed a similar vision, but with even greater emphasis on being people-centred by putting ‘human needs’ at the forefront of their vision for the information society.2

This (and other) commonalities between official WSIS outcome documents and the civil society declaration is no coincidence. It reflects the unique character of the WSIS process which enabled direct engagement of non-state actors in the formal inter-governmental process by creating opportunities for them to present their positions – including their reactions to government proposals – during the preparatory and negotiation processes in the formal plenaries, rather than in a separate parallel process, or during specially convened stakeholder consultation sessions. Previous UN summits enabled civil society participation through a parallel “NGO forum”.

The Global Digital Compact (GDC) emerged from a very different process, the UN Secretary General’s ambitious 2021 report, “Our common agenda”. This report highlights existing challenges facing the global community, such as inequality and conflict, as well as emerging challenges such as climate change and harmful consequences of digitalisation, including the internet. It also acknowledges the need for change in global governance – including within the UN system. Proposed as one of the outcomes of the Summit of the Future in September 2024, the GDC was described as emerging from a technology track involving all stakeholders: governments, the United Nations system, the private sector (including tech companies), civil society, grass-roots organizations, academia, and individuals, including youth. Its stated goals are to “outline shared principles for an open, free and secure digital future for all” with the implication that these principles will support the international cooperation that the SG identifies as necessary for protecting the health of the planet and pursuing the benefits of digital technologies while mitigating associated risks and harms.

The Global Digital Compact process has made use of dedicated consultations convened for the purpose of engaging non-state actors. Unfortunately it seems that these are mostly not attended by member state representatives. In other words, consultation has been mostly linear, opportunities for statements to be read, one after the other, with very little room for debate and dialogue and virtually no interaction between governments and civil society. The co-facilitators appointed by the President of the UN General Assembly and the UN SG’s Envoy on Technology has reached out and engaged widely in multistakeholder and civil society for a – but ultimately the process remains top down.

After more than a year of a consultation process that was both extensive and at times confusing (spanning over several online and face to face events, thematic deep dives, and a call for written submissions from member states and non-state actors) we now know that the GDC will be an annex to the Pact for the Future, the primary outcome document of the Summit of the Future. We know that input received from member states and others will be considered by the co-facilitators in the zero draft which will be presented to member states on 5 April 2024 and that the final text will be negotiated by governments.

Why start a discussion on the Global Digital Compact3 (GDC) we want, with the WSIS? Because, in many respects, for the many civil society organisations around the world who have been involved in working for a people-centred information society the GDC they want is one that builds on the WSIS amplifying its achievements, strengthening and expanding existing cooperation processes and platforms (including the Internet Governance Forum), and addressing gaps that remain after 20 years of implementation.

We want a GDC that:

  • Puts human rights at the centre of the development, deployment, utilisation and regulation of the internet and digital technologies4 and affirms a human rights-based approach (HRBA) to digitalisation. The HRBA has been adopted and is used across the UN system5 and can be applied to digitalisation more deliberately.6
  • Recognises that digitalisation can increase inequality by including “digital equality” as a core principle and approaching digital cooperation as a process that should aim to reduce inequalities between and within countries.
  • Builds on the reach and diversity of participation in the ITU’s WSIS Forum, the Commission on Science and Technology for Development’s WSIS follow up work, and the huge community that is part of the IGF process while also helping make these Geneva-based processes more inclusive by building bridges with New York-based SDG processes, and UN-based climate change forums.
  • Commits resources to the IGF and its national, regional, youth, and thematic networks as part of affirming the need for cooperative global internet and digital governance. Duplication and rivalry between efforts to enable digital cooperation could contribute to the fragmentation of digital governance.
  • Engages the media. They are both a stakeholder, and a channel for outreach and engagement. Without their active involvement the GDC process will bypass the broader public; people who are its intended beneficiaries.
  • Engages the young people including tech entrepreneurs and innovators, particularly from the global South as experts in their own right.
  • Draws on the multistakeholder NETmundial statement of principles of 2014, a statement which further develops the WSIS principles and builds on the Tunis Agenda’s commitment to inclusive governance.
  • Revitalises the UN Group for the Information Society (UNGIS) so that it can work collaboratively with the office of the UN SG’s Envoy on Technology to ensure a harmonised approach to GDC and post WSIS+20 follow-up across the UN system.
  • Is technology neutral and future oriented rather than constrained by short term anxieties emerging from “after the fact” realisation of the risks associated with digital developments such as machine learning that have been around and already in use for several years.
  • Recognises risks and harms associated with digitalisation without becoming so preoccupied with these that it loses sight of its enormous potential for good.
  • Puts “people” before “digital” by endorsing the WSIS vision of a “people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society, where everyone can create, access, utilize and share information and knowledge, enabling individuals, communities and peoples to achieve their full potential in promoting their sustainable development and improving their quality of life, premised on the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and respecting fully and upholding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”.7
  • Commits to concrete actions to “connecting the unconnected” in particular by putting into place the enabling policy, regulation and financing that is needed for communities to connect themselves. Connectivity is key to unlocking the full power of digital technologies to allow these communities to develop their capabilities, defend their rights and define their own futures with autonomy and agency.
  • Recognises that it is possible to work collaboratively with the private sector while also holding big technology companies accountable for adhering to the UN guiding principles on business and human rights and paying fair taxes in all countries where they generate revenue.
  • Affirms the value of a multi-stakeholder approach to digital governance and cooperation while also affirming the responsibility of states to create an enabling policy and regulatory environment that protects the rights of individuals and local communities, ensures corporate accountability and diverse and open markets.
  • Affirms the important role of the technical community in digital development and cooperation giving them the recognition they deserve as a distinct stakeholder group.
  • Recognises that the massive amount of data resulting from digitalisation needs to be governed in a manner that serves the public interest and ensures the protection of personal data and the right to privacy.
  • Requires states and companies ensure environmental sustainability in the use and development of digital technologies from design to production, to disposal.
  • Recognises that open standards, interoperability and an open and distributed architecture, principles that are at the heart of the success of the open internet are applicable to digital development broadly. The GDC should promote open standards that are consistent with human rights and that allow development and innovation.8
  • Reclaims the internet as a global commons: Internet infrastructure is a global public resource and should be approached, managed, and governed as such. It is also at the heart of the global information and communications ecosystem and reasserting it as commons can pave the way towards strengthening the digital commons more broadly.
  • Protects the public core of the internet. The internet is at the heart of today’s digital ecosystem and all stakeholders should commit to preventing activity that intentionally and substantially damages the general availability or integrity of the public core of the internet which includes its core protocols, routing and addressing systems.
  • Prioritises building and protecting the digital commons including through the creation, sharing and use of open science and open educational resources. This will contribute to a more connected world that collaborates in addressing conflicts and crises.
  • Places gender equality at its heart and recognises the differentiated impact that both harmful and empowering use of digital technologies have on women, girls and people of diverse genders and sexualities.

Finally, what civil society would really have liked is a GDC that is co-created with civil society and includes full recognition of the vital role that civil society organisations can play in ensuring that the GDC is understood, used and complied with. But the GDC is, first and foremost, an intergovernmental process. This has limitations when it comes to reflecting civil society views, but, it can also be a strength provided governments (a) approach the negotiation of the final text in an open and inclusive manner, drawing on all the preceding work on digital development and governance that has taken place since in the context of WSIS follow up and (b) will commit to playing their part in upholding the Compact.

There are also some features that civil society actively do not want to see in the GDC. This is a shorter list, and one that we urge member states to keep in mind when they finalise the Compact.

We do not want a GDC that:

  • Reinvents the wheel by initiating new cooperation processes at the expense of strengthening existing platforms and forums, in particular those that emerged from the WSIS and related processes.
  • Fragments digital cooperation and governance by missing the opportunity to create more coherence across the growing terrain of decentralised and distributed digital governance by creating a new track of governance principles.
  • Creates another under-resourced high-level structure without legs and feet on the ground. If the GDC does not integrate and reinforce existing UN processes that deal with digitalisation and internet governance, cybercrime and security, electronic waste, and online gender-based violence, to mention a few, it could become just one more set of principles and commitments that emerged from a UN event without any lasting impact.
  • Backtracks on the inclusive, bottom-up participative approaches to digital development and governance that emerged from the WSIS and that are still in need of further development.
  • Pays lip-service to the multistakeholder approach without creating room for (a) its further development and evolution, based on (b) critical assessment of how it need to change to contribute to a governance culture in which states, corporations and technical organisations are held sufficiently accountable for how their policies and actions impact on human rights and social and economic justice.
  • Encourages siloed approaches to science, technology and innovation by putting ‘digital’ in a separate basket.

The GDC is an opportunity to strengthen digital governance and cooperation. There are gaps and disconnects that need to be addressed. For example, the lack of adequate interconnection between the WSIS process and the Sustainable Development Goals. This has, in many respects made implementation of both more difficult for resource-constrained governments. The GDC is an opportunity to re-connect the WSIS goals to the SDGs, and both to the vast body of work on human rights and technology that has taken place in the Human Rights Council and the Office of the High Commission for Human Rights in the last 10 years. If the GDC fails to make these connections, build on existing processes, and provide meaningful participation in its implementation for all stakeholder groups, in particular for civil society, it is likely to fail entirely.


Further resources from the Association for Progressive Communications on the GDC.



  1. The Geneva Declaration of Principles and Plan of Action, 12 December 2003. ↩︎
  2. Shaping Information Societies for Human Needs, 8 December 2003. ↩︎
  3. ↩︎
  4. This and several other points included here are from the Association for Progressive Communication’s inputs into the GDC process. ↩︎
  5. UN common understanding on the HRBA to development. ↩︎
  6. ↩︎
  7. The Geneva Declaration of Principles and Plan of Action, 2003 ↩︎
  8. NetMUNDIAL statement ↩︎