26 November 2019

Free, Secure, Open Internet at Risk of Fracturing along Digital, Social, Political Lines, Secretary-General Warns in Remarks to Governance Forum

Following are UN Secretary‑General António Guterres’ remarks to the Internet Governance Forum, in Berlin today:

I am extremely pleased to be with you today.  And I am honoured to be sharing the stage with Chancellor [Angela] Merkel.  I am also privileged to share with her a unique background:  we were both first trained in the sciences, she as a physicist and a chemist, and I as an electrical engineer.  Then we both lost our way and ended up as politicians.

As public servants, we are entrusted with helping to address the most pressing issues of the day.  And little can have more relevance to our lives and futures than the responsible and effective governance of the Internet and digital technology.  Technological developments are unfolding at a speed with no parallel in human history.  The impact of digital technology is sometimes compared to that of Gutenberg´s introduction of the printing press to Europe in 1439.  Both have democratized knowledge, but at very different speeds.

It was only by 1950 that half of the world’s population was literate, meaning that it took five centuries for Gutenberg’s invention to benefit half of humanity.  It has taken the Internet just 25 years to reach half the globe.  Digital technology is shaping history.  But there is also the sense that it is running away with us.  Where will it take us?  Will our dignity and rights be enhanced or diminished?  Will our societies become more equal or less equal?  Will we become more or less secure and safe?  The answers to these questions depend on our ability to work together across disciplines and actors, across nations and political divides.  We have a collective responsibility to give direction to these technologies so that we maximize benefits and curtail unintended consequences and malicious use.

And so far, we have not kept pace.  There is an absence of technical expertise among policymakers, even in the most developed countries.  Invention is outpacing policy‑setting.  And major differences in culture and mindset are creating further challenges.  The private sector has an attitude of trial and error, moving rapidly and correcting retroactively.  Meanwhile, policymakers prefer thorough consultative processes, and are reluctant to define policy frameworks and regulations before there is clarity on all consequences.

So, while industry has been forging ahead and at times breaking things, policymakers have been watching from the sidelines.  Now, in a growing number of countries, and at regional levels, the governance gap is being addressed.  And what Europe has achieved is noteworthy.  But there is still a major deficit at the international level, including even in Europe itself.  This puts at risk our common aspiration for a universally accessible, free, secure and open Internet — one world, one Net, one vision.  And it is clear for me that we live in one world.  But it is not entirely clear that we will live only with one Net.

It is a very emotional moment, when 30 years ago, we have seen the fall of the Berlin wall.  And so it is for me an enormous frustration to know that today, not only are we still building physical walls to separate people, but that there is also a tendency to create some virtual walls in the Internet, also to separate people.  And the only way to avoid it is if we are able to have one vision.  And one vision and one world.  I hope to be able to have also one Internet.  Today, an accessible, free, secure and open Internet is at risk of fracturing along three intersecting lines.  There is a profound digital divide, a social divide and a political divide.  Allow me take each in turn.

First, the digital divide.  Today, there are still 3.6 billion people without affordable access to the Internet.  And most alarmingly, among the world’s 47 least developed countries, where the Internet could have a truly transformative impact, more than 80 per cent of the population is still offline.  And the gender gap in connectivity continues to widen.  Only 2 per cent of women in Latin America and the Caribbean and in East Asia and the Pacific own a mobile phone with Internet access.  Worldwide, some 327 million fewer women than men have a smartphone and can access the mobile Internet.  Women are also drastically underrepresented in information and communications technology jobs, top management and academic careers in the technological sector.  And 90 per cent of startups seeking venture capital have been founded by men.  Connecting all the world’s people by 2030 must be our shared priority, not only for sustainable development, but for gender equality.  We must do better, especially for young girls in developing countries.

There are many initiatives that need to be better supported and accelerated.  One potentially game‑changing connectivity project, called “GIGA”, is being led by UNICEF and the United Nations International Telecommunications Union to connect every school in the world to the Internet by 2030.  The digital divide is also exacerbated by the unequal distribution of know‑how and expertise.  To address this, we will pursue the implementation of the recommendation of my High‑Level Panel on Digital Cooperation on capacity‑building.  The digital divide can aggravate the social divide.  Given the polarizing nature of much Internet content, we cannot avoid the question of whether it is a tool to bring us together or whether it is dividing us.  My belief is that the Internet can be a powerful force for good, but we are seeing also that it is a tool that can easily be put to nefarious use.  The algorithms that determine social media can trap us in the echo chambers of our own opinions and prejudices.  There are pressing questions to be answered regarding how we allow our lives, our political discourse and our societies to be influenced by an as‑yet largely unregulated industry of social media providers.

Artificial intelligence applications can be used to monitor and manipulate behaviour, to besiege us with ever more targeted and intrusive advertising, to manipulate voters, to track human rights defenders and to stifle expressions of dissent.  How do we safeguard privacy in an age of artificial intelligence, facial recognition, location monitoring, biometric sensors and the Internet of things?  How can we ensure that human rights obligations apply online as they do offline?

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and others are working on the urgent task of understanding better how exactly international human rights can be applied in cyberspace.  We also need to understand the relationship between digital advances and inequality.  New technology has contributed to a steep rise in the number of billionaires over the past 20 years.  And use of digital technologies by those who have yet to fully share in such benefits has also made them increasingly aware of the gulf between rich and poor, between their misfortune and the wealth and security others enjoy.  We know that inequality and exclusion drive social unrest and conflict.  We also know that digital technologies, depending on their use, can be a force that widens social gaps or reduces them.  The High‑Level Panel’s recommendation to maximize digital public goods are important and deserve further support.

Let me now turn to the third and potentially most dangerous divide:  the political divide.  Today, there is a real risk of a geopolitical rupture — a great fracture of trade, security and Internet systems.  You are all familiar with the politics surrounding 5G technologies.  You are also aware of the growing efforts of some States to construct ever harder borders in cyberspace, on the one hand, and the ever-increasing number of cross‑border cyberattacks, on the other.

Low‑intensity cyberconflict between major States is not a future prediction but a feature of our present time.  In such a climate, mechanisms that build trust and cooperation are indispensable.  The growing frequency and severity of cyberattacks are undermining trust and encouraging States to adopt offensive postures for the hostile use of cyberspace.  The potential dangers of this demand a much more vigorous collective response.  If we do not work together to address these divides, we will be remembered as the generation that ruined the early promise of the Internet.

With its unparalleled convening power and universal legitimacy, I see the United Nations as the appropriate platform where all relevant actors can meet to address such global challenges.  Allow me to propose three ways in which this Internet Governance Forum can lead the way:

First, let us build this Forum into a platform where Government representatives from all parts of the world — along with companies, technical experts and civil society — can come together to share policy expertise, debate emerging technology issues, agree on some basic common principles, and take these ideas back to appropriate norm‑setting forums.

Second, I encourage us all to take up the recommendation of the High‑Level Panel on Digital Cooperation and explore the possibility of a global commitment on digital trust and security.  This political commitment would be open to Governments, industry and institutions worldwide and will help us prevent further political division.  It will build on agreed global norms for cyberspace and the pioneering work done for the Paris Call and the Christchurch Call, as well as processes fostered under the auspices of the United Nations General Assembly.  We will consult widely and bring this forward next September as Member States mark the seventy‑fifth anniversary of the United Nations.

Lastly, I will soon appoint a Technology Envoy to work with Governments, industry and civil society to help advance international frameworks and nurture a shared digital future that puts people first and helps bridge the social divide.  These ideas can be building blocks towards a shared digital future that we can be proud to pass down to future generations.  A future with one world, one Net, one vision.

I encourage you in your efforts this week.  Thank you.

For information media. Not an official record.