Print
SG/SM/20118
11 June 2020

Digital Divide ‘a Matter of Life and Death’ amid COVID-19 Crisis, Secretary‑General Warns Virtual Meeting, Stressing Universal Connectivity Key for Health, Development

Following are UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ remarks to the virtual high-level meeting on the “Impact of Rapid Technological Change on the Achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals”, in New York today:

Managing rapid technological change is a defining challenge of our generation.  The digital revolution affects every country and territory, and all areas of our lives.  The Internet is a powerful and essential global public good that requires the highest possible level of international cooperation.  Yet, fundamental pillars of that cooperation are lacking.

As we address this gap, we face a new global challenge:  the COVID-19 pandemic, which is causing unprecedented human suffering and economic hardship around the world.  Far from distracting us from the urgency of digital cooperation, COVID-19 is making it more important than ever, and demonstrating the interconnected nature of the challenges we face.

Digital technology is central to almost every aspect of the response to the pandemic, from vaccine research to online learning models, e-commerce and tools that are enabling hundreds of millions of people to work and study from home.

But, the digital divide is now a matter of life and death for people who are unable to access essential health‑care information.  It is threatening to become the new face of inequality, reinforcing the social and economic disadvantages suffered by women and girls, people with disabilities and minorities of all kinds.  In 2019, some 87 per cent of people in developed countries used the Internet, compared with just 19 per cent in the least developed countries.

At the same time, COVID-19 has provided dramatic evidence of the threats posed by the ungoverned use of digital technology, from exclusion and inequality, to surveillance, human rights abuses and cybercrime  The pandemic has ushered in some of the most intrusive surveillance technologies we have ever seen, together with a significant increase in cynical ransomware attacks on hospitals and health‑care facilities.

Meanwhile, the danger of digital fragmentation is increasing, exacerbated by geopolitical divides, technological competition and polarization.

We are at a turning point.  We urgently need to harness the infinite opportunities offered by digital technology in order to scale up our efforts on health care, on the climate crisis, on eradicating poverty and across all the Sustainable Development Goals.  But, to realize these opportunities, we must move forward in the digital age with increased international cooperation based on mutual trust.

Two years ago, I initiated a process to chart a way forward.  The overarching goal has been to increase international digital cooperation to optimize the use of digital technologies and mitigate the risks.  The report of the High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation, co-chaired by Melinda Gates and Jack Ma, has guided the past year of consultations with Member States, the private sector, civil society and academia.  I thank everyone involved.

The recommendations from the High-Level Panel report emphasized the need to close the digital divide, grow human and institutional capacity for the digital age, uphold human rights in digital contexts, build cybertrust and -security, and agree on a new global architecture for digital cooperation.

All these perspectives have contributed to the development of the Road Map for Digital Cooperation, which I am pleased to present today.  The Road Map outlines concrete actions for Member States, the private sector, civil society, the technology community and the global public to connect, respect and protect people in the digital age.

To connect — by providing universal, safe, inclusive, affordable Internet access by 2030.  To respect — by putting human rights and human dignity at the centre of everything we do online, as well as off.  To protect — by tackling the abuses and violations that threaten the security of people, communities, organizations and economies, and by reducing the danger of fragmentation.

The Road Map sets out to achieve these aims through concrete steps in eight areas.  First, achieving universal connectivity.  Together, we can ensure that every person has safe and affordable access to the Internet by 2030.  Second, recognizing and promoting digital public goods through common standards on open data.  We must halt and reverse the decline in the proportion of the Internet that is open-source and publicly available, while respecting privacy and confidentiality.

Third, making targeted efforts to include the most vulnerable, who are at greatest risk of being left behind.  This includes addressing the digital gender gap, which is growing.  Fourth, building digital capacity in every country, through expanded training programmes and support.  Fifth, ensuring the protection of human rights in the digital era.  International human rights law must apply online and off.

Sixth, providing global vision and leadership on the development of artificial intelligence — an area that poses some of the greatest challenges to governance.  Seventh, promoting digital trust and security to advance the Sustainable Development Goals.  Finally, building a more effective architecture for digital cooperation.

We are only beginning to understand the social implications of a post‑COVID‑19 world.  But, one thing is certain:  as we recover and rebuild, digital technology will be more prominent and important than ever.  Those without access will be left further behind.  We cannot reap the full benefits of the digital age without mobilizing global cooperation to close digital gaps and reduce potential harms.

We urgently need global vision and leadership for our digitally interdependent world.

The Road Map for Digital Cooperation calls on everyone — Governments, the private sector, civil society, the tech community, academia and the global public — to take concrete action together to address the most pressing issues of the digital age.

I count on your strong support.  Future generations will judge whether we seize the opportunities of this unprecedented moment.

For information media. Not an official record.