Digital rights

New U.N. “Roadmap” on tech: only useful if we drive “digital cooperation” forward

On June 11, 2020 the United Nations (U.N.) Secretary-General launched his Roadmap for Digital Cooperation (Roadmap). The Roadmap outlines 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. 

U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres believesthe internet should be a right. The Secretary General comes from the humanitarian world, and while he does not have a background in tech or digital issues, he understands the need for urgent action, structural critiques, and cooperation across sectors and stakeholders. In addition to the new Roadmap, the U.N. Secretary General fostered several initiatives now coming to fruition, including parts of his Strategy on New Technologies – creating a new Tech Envoy office, a high level panel report on “digital cooperation,” and a Call to Action on human rights.

But how serious, and urgent, is this work plan? What role does an international institution such as the U.N., with legacies of political gridlock and creaking bureaucracy, have to play in shaping the future of digital rights? This question becomes particularly charged when considering the global commitment of U.N. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 9.C, which aimed to “significantly increase access to information and communications technology and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the internet in least developed countries by 2020.” In light of SDG 9.C, and the COVID-19 pandemic, now more than ever, 2020 is a critical juncture to address this question because the world is well behind and will miss this well-intentioned target.   

With the launch of these new initiatives, Access Now takes this opportunity to reflect on our active participation as Co-Champions in the U.N. Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation (HLPDC) of Recommendation 3A/B Digital Human Rights, a U.N. led multi-stakeholder initiative attempting to address this very question. 


In July 2018, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres established the HLPDC. The aim of the HLPDC is to strengthen international and multi-stakeholder cooperation consulting with civil society, governments, and private companies, among others to contribute to the public debate on “a safe and inclusive digital future for all.” 

The HLPDC, composed of 20 independent members and chaired by philanthropist Melinda Gates and e-business leader Jack Ma, therefore set out to “facilitate the development and adoption of a global commitment for digital cooperation by 2020,” similar to “the World We Want process that helped formulate the (SDGs).” Global and regional consultations were held throughout 2018, and in June 2019 and the HLPDC presented its recommendations to the U.N. Secretary General in a landmark report titled “The Age of Digital Independence” (the Report). The Report provides 5 sets of recommendations to improve digital cooperation: (1) build an inclusive digital economy and society, (2) develop human and institutional capacity, (3) protect human rights and human agency, (4) promote digital trust, security and stability and, (5) foster global digital cooperation. 

To follow up on the Report, more than 100 Member States, entities and organizations, including Access Now, sent feedback and volunteered to lead or participate in discussions as “Champions” or “Key Constituents” on one or more of the HLPDC’s recommendations. Each recommendation therefore has a dedicated group composed of roughly 4-5 Champions and approximately 30 Key Constituents to engage in a series of roundtable discussions facilitated by the Office of the Special Adviser, U.N. Under-Secretary-General Fabrizio Hochschild. 

Along with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the Government of the Republic of South Korea and the European Union, Access Now is co-championing Recommendation 3A/B, the recommendation on Digital Human Rights. Since December 2019, the co-champions and key stakeholders of Recommendation 3A/B have engaged in a series of roundtable discussions to implement Recommendation 3A/B through existing human rights mechanisms and new initiatives across geographies and stakeholder groups. 

Access Now’s priorities on the HLPDC Roundtable 

We engaged in the HLPDC equipped with a set of priorities to ensure meaningful multi-stakeholder input and concrete implementation of the U.N. Secretary General’s Call to Action. Here are some of  our priorities: 

  1. Increase representation and participation of women and Global South organizations as Key Constituents in the Roundtable discussions. We believe that meaningful multi-stakeholder engagement and systemic global action requires the intersectional perspectives from a diverse set of stakeholders worldwide.
  2. Strengthen – and avoid duplication of – existing human rights mechanisms. The foremost forum remains the Human Rights Council, and we believe it’s important to underpin and cheerlead its human rights leadership, along with the work of the OHCHR, regional bodies, national commissions, and independent experts. Yet we also hope to achieve specific, measurable ideas and concrete outcomes to produce urgent action on areas where new technologies outpace safeguards for rights. 
  3. Highlight thematic areas, such as internet shutdowns, digital ID, and cybersecurity, that require urgent attention via a human rights-based approach. States agree that “human rights apply online as well as offline”; we must move beyond this narrative to integrate this human rights perspective into these deeper issues. We believe that these specific references to topics provide opportunity to integrate that perspective into digital and cyber spaces. 
U.N. Secretary General’s Roadmap 

The launch of the Roadmap came through a series of online dialogues focused on implementing the eight key areas for action. Our Executive Director, Brett Solomon, was invited to speak at the digital human rights session on Friday, June 12, 2020.  

See Brett Solomon’s remarks to the “Dialogue on implementation of the Roadmap: The Way Forward: Key Areas I and II,” on YouTube and via a rough transcript here (Brett is Speaker 28).  Solomon urged action, and highlighted the “imperity of connectivity” in the midst of COVID-19, #BlackLivesMatter protests, and economic inequality. He noted that power, class, politics, and race in addition to financial barriers keep people offline and prevent reach of the SDGs and the realization of human rights and digital cooperation. 

Moving forward 

Now that the U.N. Secretary-General’s Roadmap has launched, the international community must move forward to spearhead its implementation. But is this path toward digital cooperation as smooth as one would hope? Many stakeholders across a variety of perspectives have largely welcomed and championed the U.N. Secretary-General’s Roadmap for its ambitious path forward and for addressing the gaps existing in the current international framework. As captured by Chatham House, “the Roadmap for Digital Cooperation is one of the most ambitious and far-reaching attempts so far to provide a universal affirmative vision of the digital realm — one that is open, safe and rooted in human agency and human rights.” The Diplo Foundation further suggests that the Roadmap “accelerates digital cooperation while anchoring it to the political, social, and legal realities of the digital world” particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, as Chatham House rightfully notes, a vision to realize, to implement the Roadmap, “requires a delicate marrying of power and representation.” Simply put, “the ambition of the U.N. playing a centralizing and coherence-building role in global technology governance has to contend with the reality of profoundly differing approaches between democratic and authoritarian governments. 

For us at Access Now, we look forward to continuing to engage with fellow Co-Champions and Key Constituents on the Roundtable integrating a human rights perspective into discussions, activities, and outputs. We will prioritize amplifying the voices of those most affected by providing information from our #KeepItOn campaign and Digital Security Helpline. We will continue to work with civil society in and from the Global South on initiatives across the U.N. fora, and alongside our Co-Champions, the OHCHR, who were called on by the Secretary General to develop system-wide guidance on human rights due diligence and impact assessment on the use of new technologies. And finally, regarding the Tech Envoy, we’ll be following closely. We believe that the quality of  the Tech Envoy office depends on the quality of person engaged. Civil society must be included in the selection and the execution of the Tech Envoy role. Overall, while the road ahead is ambitious, multi-stakeholder engagement that continues to center the voices of civil society organizations will remain key to ensuring a smooth path forward for users at risk.