Rights-based Digital Cooperation requires transparency on the U.N. Tech Envoy

This is the second part of our three-part blog series reflecting on 2020 and the state of digital rights at the United Nations. Check out our previous post on the world’s failure to meet Sustainable Development Goal 9.C on internet access. 

Following developments at the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) over the last several weeks, and five months after the United Nations (U.N.) Secretary-General called on the international community to spearhead its implementation, we’re taking a critical look at progress on the U.N. Roadmap for Digital Cooperation (the Roadmap). As we previously outlined, the Roadmap contains eight key areas to advance a safer, more equitable digital world, and aims to provide “concrete actions to connect, respect, and protect people in the digital age.” It specifically provides potential mechanisms for global digital cooperation, including the establishment of a new multi-stakeholder coalition on digital inclusion, an advisory body on global artificial intelligence, and the appointment of a new Tech Envoy in 2021: a high-level role for which partnership with civil society will be critical. 

Since its launch in June 2020, the Roadmap has become a reference point for work in the digital sphere at the international level. For example, the recent privacy in the digital age resolution led by Germany and Brazil at the U.N. General Assembly, which just passed out of the 3rd Committee and is headed to consensus adoption, now cites this authoritative source. 

But aside from these references, what exactly has the international community done to spearhead the Roadmap’s implementation? How is the U.N. selecting the new Tech Envoy? And engaging in Digital Cooperation multi-stakeholder discussions? The U.N. has not done enough to facilitate dialogue with and actively include civil society in the global fight for digital rights, and Access Now and our partners have worked diligently to advocate for a more inclusive approach. We look forward to working even more closely with U.N. leaders to advance rights-based digital cooperation, and engaging civil society in the selection of the U.N. Tech Envoy is an opportunity to move forward together in 2021.

U.N. Tech Envoy must move forward in partnership with civil society

Despite our call at the outset to include civil society in the selection of the U.N. Tech Envoy and the execution of the role, there has been little to no transparency around the process to date. The recent Internet Governance Forum (IGF) — hosted by the U.N. — did not facilitate any open discussions to engage on this important high-level role. Noting this missed opportunity, we mobilized civil society actors engaged in digital cooperation to lead advocacy efforts on the U.N. Tech Envoy at this opportune, multi-stakeholder forum. 

Our advocacy was a two-prong approach. First, we sent a letter of intent to engage with the U.N. Secretary-General’s Digital Cooperation efforts on the U.N. Tech Envoy. We then actively brought together other civil society actors through a broader IGF Networking Break, which was an open consultation on non-State Digital Cooperation stakeholders to discuss expectations of and aspirations for the U.N. Tech Envoy. Second, we followed up on our promise to engage by developing a non-state stakeholders’ position paper on the U.N. Tech Envoy, which provides a good sense of civil society’s position of the role. Access Now acted as a key penholder in drafting this position paper, drawing from several sources within the U.N. framework to provide guiding principles for appointment. Access Now also highlighted the importance of having the U.N. Tech Envoy serve as a gatekeeper for public-private partnerships at the U.N. to ensure that any new partnerships create positive precedent for future digital cooperation between intergovernmental organizations and ICT companies. As of the date of publication, 89 non-state actors are signatories to this position paper. 

Going forward, Access Now and other civil society organizations should be meaningfully consulted in the process of defining the role and selecting the right person for the job.

Digital Cooperation at IGF 2020

IGF 2020, which took place virtually from 2 – 17 November, held a Main Session on Digital Cooperation on 12 November. This high-level, multi-stakeholder discussion was moderated by Under Secretary-General (USG) Fabrizio Hochschild, and focused on building the Roadmap with a specific emphasis on the role of the IGF. The session addressed five core topics: (1) inclusion and broader participation, (2) accelerated cooperation, (3) outcomes, (4) high-level engagement, and (5) communications & finance. As captured by USG Hoschild, the Roadmap represents what needs to be done across stakeholder groups and regions. The session further reminded the international community of member states’ formal commitment to digital cooperation, most recently captured in the Declaration on the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the U.N., while raising awareness on important challenges in the digital age, such as internet connectivity and addressing digital divides that disproportionately impact women and girls, and the importance of employing a rights-based approach as we move forward to address these challenges. 

However, there were significant barriers to participation for many stakeholders, most notably civil society, and we urge both the IGF and the Secretary-General’s office to pay special care to removing those barriers going forward. 

Access Now worked closely with a civil society-led coalition to gain a seat at the virtual table in this high-level discussion and submitted a written response to the session’s main topics. We highlighted the need to ensure that there is adequate space for civil society across all the various pathways for participation at IGF, and that the host country demonstrates respect for freedom of expression and freedom of association and assembly. We also called on the IGF Secretariat and Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) to make best efforts to ensure that future IGF events do not overlap with other key multistakeholder U.N. forums, such as the U.N. Forum on Business and Human Rights, to ensure all stakeholders can engage and advance digital cooperation across all relevant U.N. fora. 

Represented by Bruna Martins dos Santos, our coalition also made an oral intervention during the session where we recommended (1) building a stronger link between the IGF Secretariat and U.N. office, (2) improving communication of final messages to parliaments, and (3) focusing on unique value-adds and avoiding duplication of existing MAG processes. We also echoed the call for the IGF to remain open, inclusive, bottom-up, and gender-responsive.

Digital Human Rights 

Despite these opportunities for improvement, we are encouraged by the extent to which the Roadmap centers human rights, as well as the existing commitments of various stakeholders. Supporting that rights focus, Access Now is co-championing the Roadmap’s Recommendation 3A/B on Digital Human Rights together with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the Government of the Republic of South Korea, and the European Union.

We are especially committed to continuing work with civil society in and from the Global South on initiatives across the U.N. fora, and with our Co-Champions, the OHCHR, who the Secretary-General called on to develop system-wide guidance on human rights due diligence and impact assessment for the use of new technologies. 

Multi-stakeholder engagement that centers the voices of civil society organizations will ensure a smooth path forward for the U.N. Tech Envoy to address the needs and interests of users at risk. We are dedicated to actively advocating for rights-based digital cooperation leading up to the appointment, and throughout the mandate, of the new U.N. Tech Envoy, and we look forward to collectively advancing our digital rights efforts going forward.