New York

21 November 2019

Secretary-General's remarks to the First Meeting of the Group of Friends on Digital Technologies [as prepared for delivery]

It is a pleasure to be here with you at this inaugural meeting of the Group of Friends on Digital Technologies. I thank the Permanent Missions of Mexico, Finland and Singapore for this important, and even essential, initiative.
 
New technologies, and particularly digital technologies, are already having a major impact on the world, affecting all our work on international peace and security, sustainable development and human rights.
 
That impact is both positive and negative.
 
We need to maximise the positive, and there is a major role here for both formal and informal frameworks, including this Group of Friends.
 
Technological developments are unfolding at unprecedented speed. It took 50 years for electricity to reach the first 50 million users.  It has taken half that time for digital technologies to reach three billion users. 
 
Within the United Nations, many important initiatives and discussions are under way. These include the Group of Government Experts and the Open-Ended Working Group processes, the GA Plenary, the Multi-stakeholder Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation, the Commission on Science and Technology for Development and others.  All of these aim to maximise the benefits of technologies whilst mitigating harms. 
 
But they are not enough, and they are not coordinated. Our thinking and action are not keeping pace with the challenge. 
 
I set up the High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation to come up with proposals to strengthen our joint efforts, including Governments, the private sector, civil society, academia and international organisations. I am grateful to the United Arab Emirates and Switzerland for supporting the Panel, and to all panel members for their work.
 
The Panel’s recommendations emphasise the need to close the digital gap, grow human and institutional capacity, recognise human rights in digital contexts, build cyber trust and security, and agree on a new global architecture for digital cooperation.
 
The report has received broad support from governments, industry, and civil society and we are now finalizing small groups of multistakeholder “Champions” for each of the recommendations.
 
These Champions will be leading groups of key constituents, drawn from governments, UN agencies, funds and programmes, industry, civil society and academia.
 
These groups will meet regularly over the next year to ensure that the recommendations of the report lead to tangible action that has real impact.
 
I urge your support for this process, both as individual governments and through this Group of Friends. Under-Secretary-General Fabrizio Hochschild will provide more details in his briefing. 
 
Beyond these immediate priorities, I hope the Group of Friends will pursue a long-term vision.
 
We, the international community, urgently need to broaden and deepen our engagement to ensure that we are making maximum use of digital technologies, including artificial intelligence, cyber tools, blockchain and robotics, while mitigating risks.
 
Digital technologies are simple to access and have very serious cross-border impacts. Decisions taken at the global level will help determine whether they are used in ways that are harmful or beneficial, and how risks and benefits are distributed across the world.
 
We cannot allow digital technology to undermine our human rights and fundamental freedoms.
 
Nor can we allow it to reinforce and amplify existing inequalities based on gender, income, ethnicity, region, development status or any other factor.
 
National and regional measures are critical, but they often lag behind innovation. International cooperation is deteriorating when it is needed most, giving way to isolationism and populism.  Joint action is vital to mitigate risks and ensure that systems are interoperable and inclusive, providing access across sectors and borders. 
 
If we proceed via fragmented regulation of the digital space, we risk losing a free, secure internet – or conversely, failing to provide adequate guardrails for all. 
 
Success depends on our ability to work together across disciplines and stakeholder groups, across nations and political divides.     
 
Harnessing digital technology is essential to achieving the promise of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the SDGs.
 
We need to make sure no country or group is left behind across the entire agenda. The most affluent countries have a disproportionate input into regulatory discourse, although the Global South stands to gain or lose the most from new technologies
 
I urge this Group of Friends to address these discrepancies. Unless we do so, the high price of access and the centralisation of digital infrastructure and capacity could lead to monopolization by mature economies.
 
This Group of Friends is a formidable global force for inclusivity and diversity.
 
I urge you to seize the initiative, address the biggest questions, and to cross political and regional boundaries.
 
And I forward to learning from your deliberations.
 
Thank you.