The UN Secretary-General has released a Policy Brief offering a first idea of the principles, objectives and recommendations that could feature in the Global Digital Compact. This includes some welcome steps for libraries, but there remain areas needing clarification in order to ensure that it reflects the needs of libraries and their users. 

The Global Digital Compact represents not just a key pillar of the work undertaken in the context of the United Nations (UN) Secretary General’s Our Common Agenda process, but also the latest step in his engagement around the topic of ‘Digital Cooperation’.

To provide further background, work around Our Common Agenda stems from the Declaration of the UN’s Member States at the Organisation’s 75th anniversary, looking to how to give it the tools and direction it needed for the next quarter century. There is also a strong focus on what can be done to accelerate the achievement of the goals of the 2030 Agenda, in the face of worrying trends.

As for Digital Cooperation, this idea also emerged a few years ago, in response to a sense that the tools currently in place for global governance of the internet and digital technologies in general were not effective enough to respond to challenges and realise the potential positive impacts of technology.

Crucially, both aspects of this centre on what can be done at the level of the UN itself at the top of the multilateral multistakeholder system. However, it does so with strong reference to how such processes can then shape what national governments and other stakeholders then do on the ground.

The Compact itself, according to the brief, therefore aims to identify ‘principles, objectives and actions for advancing an open, free, secure and human-centred digital future, one that is anchored in universal human rights and that enables the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals’.

Its stated purpose is to ‘advance multi-stakeholder cooperation in order to achieve this vision. It would articulate shared principles and objectives and identify concrete actions for their implementation. It would establish a global framework for bringing together and leveraging existing digital cooperation processes to support dialogue and collaboration among regional, national, industry and expert organizations and platforms, according to their respective mandates and competencies, and facilitate new governance arrangements where needed’.

What the Policy Brief Says

The policy brief shared in late May is one of a range being produced ahead of this September’s SDG Summit, and as a key milestone in work towards the Summit of the Future. While processes have varied, the brief on the Global Digital Compact is based on a broad and inclusive stakeholder engagement process, to which IFLA contributed based on consultation with libraries globally.

The brief is not long, and is worth a look for anyone interested in internet governance. It offers initial ideas about the key themes that the Compact is likely to address, as well as some initial ideas on what its principles, objectives and concrete recommendations could look like.

Importantly, it argues that there are three key divides that need to be addressed: a digital divide (in terms of connectivity and ability to use the internet), a data divide (in terms of possibilities to access and apply data to achieve public interest goals), and a governance divide (in terms of the ability of public authorities to regulate new technologies appropriately.

The Brief then runs through the seven key themes already highlighted during the consultation process, including connectivity (with a strong focus on promoting skills and developing digital public infrastructures and services), digital cooperation for development (mainly focused on digitalising the public sector and data for development), human rights, an open and secure internet, digital trust and security, data protection, agile governance of AI, and a global digital commons (mainly focused on inclusive governance).

In each section, there are principles, objectives, and recommendations for governments, stakeholders as a whole, and the UN and multilateral system).

Finally, it leaves space to explore what digital cooperation may look like in practice. Citing examples like the governance of internet protocols, open source software and the Digital Library of the Commons, it is enthusiastic about creating possibilities to bring stakeholders together to exchange ideas and support convergence around key issues. It also proposes a Digital Cooperation Forum, which would act as a ‘hub’ for existing and potential future sectoral initiatives.

Relevance for Libraries

The Compact says many of the right things from the point of view of libraries. Particular highlights include:

  • A call for investment in building digital and cross-cutting skills alongside efforts to enhance connectivity
  • A focus on digitally empowering public institutions could be read as including ensuring that all libraries are online and able to make the most of digital in providing services
  • A reference to the need to extend initiatives on mapping school connectivity (implicit here is the GIGA initiative) to other relevant public institutions, which can be read as including libraries.
  • The recommendation to ‘commit to coordinating actions, subsidies and incentives for digital technical and vocational training and public access facilities’ implies a move towards a more systemic approach to mobilising libraries’ potential, especially for disadvantaged groups
  • A renewed drive to define and measure meaningful connectivity, as well as to identify a million Digital Champions, especially in Africa. Once details of this idea emerge, there could be opportunities for libraries.
  • A priority on promoting an open and equitable data ecosystem, favouring interoperability and public interest access. There is scope to make the link here with open science, and other library efforts to facilitate data use for development.
  • The definition of the internet as a global public good, and the suggestion of having a digital human rights advisory mechanism connected to the Human Rights Council.
  • The suggestion of work towards a Global Data Compact, and in general greater accountability and transparency about the actions of major platforms, especially around data use and artificial intelligence.

Areas for Improvement

Nonetheless, there are some noticeable gaps in the document as it stands now that will hopefully be addressed in the coming months. IFLA will be making these arguments in our own engagement in internet governance spaces and the wider UN:

  • The Brief’s focus on digital skills remains narrow, implying that only those in formal education and in work would receive them. Everyone needs such skills, and this should be made clear as a principle.
  • The Brief includes very little on the importance of access to relevant and useful content as a key factor in ensuring that the digital world realises its potential. It implies that the main ‘draw’ for people to get online is likely to be public services and infrastructures. While these are certainly important, a fuller vision could provide a better incentive for those who can to connect.
  • It would be powerful to reiterate that digital public goods cover not just infrastructures but also content, both the public domain and openly licenced content in general. The Brief for the most part avoids references to intellectual property, and could take a much more goals-focused approach here, underlining how this must work in ways that align with the overall goals of the Compact, rather than as a potential brake on them.
  • It is implied that the path to universal connectivity remains through finding ways to incentivise private companies to bring people online. This is unlikely ever to allow everyone access, and also neglects the complementary role that public access can play – this should be recognised.
  • The proposed governance structures proposed would appear to add another layer to those that already exist, in particular the Internet Governance Forum which already addresses many of the issues highlighted in the Compact. More broadly, the question remains of how to balance a states-first approach with a multi-stakeholder model.
  • Finally, the Brief could do more to explain how the Global Digital Compact will fit in with other processes, in order to ensure that efforts to drive and shape the digital world align with broader development initiatives.

We look forward to the next steps in the process, and to seeing libraries and our values reflected in future texts.