With Almost Half of World’s Population Still Offline, Digital Divide Risks Becoming ‘New Face of Inequality’, Deputy Secretary-General Warns General Assembly

Following are UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed’s remarks at the General Assembly high-level thematic debate on digital cooperation and connectivity, today:

It is a pleasure to join you for this important discussion on digital cooperation.  I thank the President of the General Assembly for convening this timely event.

Our digital age holds much promise for turbocharging our work to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.  Digital technologies — from artificial intelligence to blockchain — have truly transformative potential.  They augment human capacity, open new frontiers of productivity, and provide new opportunities for people and societies.

But even as we recognize their vast potential, we must contend with the risks.  We have seen digital technologies become vehicles for the spread of misinformation, hate speech, online child abuse and violent extremism.  In the wrong hands, they are tools for violating human rights and engaging in terrorist activity.

Digital technologies can reinforce and indeed accelerate inequalities.  As the world becomes more digitally dependent, it threatens to exclude those that remain disconnected.  Almost half the world’s population, 3.7 billion people, the majority of them women, and most in developing countries, are still offline.

The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted this disparity.  While confronting the pandemic, those without Internet access have been unable to benefit from remote education, remote work, or remote health services.  Without decisive action, the digital divide will become the new face of inequality.

I would like to stress three key opportunities.

First, in responding to the growing fragmentation in the digital space, the United Nations has a key role to play.  Geopolitical fault lines between major powers are emerging, with technology as a leading area of tension and disagreement.  Technology companies are responding in different ways to varying national approaches on issues such as privacy, data governance and freedom of expression.  This is made worse by the deepening digital divide between developed and developing countries, which means that global discussions on digital issues are often less inclusive and representative of the concerns and priorities of the global South.  Now more than ever, we need a global townhall to address these issues and to capitalize on technology’s transformational potential to create new jobs, boost financial inclusion, close the gender gap, spur a green recovery and redesign our cities.

Second, no single country or company, by itself, should steer the course of our digital future.  This is why we must reaffirm the value of engaging with all stakeholders and convening multi-stakeholder partnerships.  The task of achieving universal connectivity cannot be left solely to governments, or even to individual technology companies.  The same is true for managing artificial intelligence.

Third, when faced with complex issues like online incitement to violence, or the use of private data, the private sector is increasingly looking for guidance at the global level — minimum criteria or basic norms of behaviour that can help level the playing field for all stakeholders, and in so doing, provide equal protection to all users and consumers, no matter where they are.

Collectively, our task is to help design digital environments that can connect everyone with a positive future.  This is why we need a common effort, with collaboration among national and local governments, the private sector, civil society, academia and multilateral organizations.

As with other technologies of the past, we can work to create “guard rails” that ensure that digital transformation is a force for good.  It is encouraging that Member States have asked to improve digital cooperation and to use the United Nations as platform for dialogue.  As highlighted by President Bozkir, it will be crucial to build inclusive and open partnerships that can resist the forces that are pulling us apart.

Most importantly, in all our discussions and efforts, we must not lose sight of the people we serve.  We must prioritize concrete actions and outcome-oriented initiatives, such as “Giga”, the United Nations effort to connect every school in the world to the Internet, and our ongoing efforts to ensure a legal identity for all through digital birth registration.

Collective action is the basis of the Secretary-General’s Road Map for Digital Cooperation. Good progress has been made in its implementation but of course far more is needed.  The establishment of the Office of the Tech Envoy has been an important step forward.

Yet, to reinvigorate our efforts to implement this vision during the Decade of Action, it is crucial that we also include young people and businesses at the country-level at the centre of these discussions.  We have much to learn from both the generation that will be most affected by the rapid changes currently taking place and the private sector, which is already having to adapt to survive.  Their perspectives will be vital in ensuring our collective success.

We look forward to continuing our shared efforts to build a more open, free and secure digital future for all.

For information media. Not an official record.