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Safe, Productive Online Future Means Closing Gaping Digital Divide ‘That Is Fast Becoming the New Face of Inequality’, Secretary-General Tells Digital Assembly

Following is the text of UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ video message to the high-level ministerial conference of the Digital Assembly, in Lisbon today:

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased our dependence on digital technologies.  But, it has also highlighted the stark divide between the digital haves and have‑nots.

Even as societies shut down, those with reliable access to the Internet could still work and learn.  But, this was not the case for the 3.7 billion people who remain offline, most of whom are women and girls in developing countries.  Nearly one third of the world’s children have missed out on education because they do not have access to remote schooling, and this is far from over.

Recovery from the pandemic must include urgent action to close a digital divide that is fast becoming the new face of inequality.  We will only achieve the Sustainable Development Goals if we harness the potential of digital technologies to enable and empower everyone, everywhere.

But, even as we strive to bring billions online, we must confront new challenges in keeping people safe and secure.  Cyberattacks are increasing and the online space has the potential to become a new battleground among global Powers.

Big tech companies exercise extraordinary control over issues that profoundly affect peoples’ lives.

Artificial intelligence and other technologies can improve public health, agriculture and humanitarian operations, but they can also enable harassment, surveillance and human rights violations, and accelerate the spread of misinformation and hate speech.

I am convinced that our digital future requires greater global guidance, not less.  At this time of growing online fragmentation, people want a responsible and thoughtful approach to digital governance — one that accelerates innovation and growth, protects users and the environment and builds trust and solidarity between peoples.

Increasingly, they are looking to the United Nations to help achieve this.  We are fully committed to working with all stakeholders to forge new areas of understanding and common purpose, as set out in my Roadmap for Digital Cooperation.

Progress depends on the support of concerned Governments, like-minded private sector leaders and determined civil society advocates.

This Digital Assembly and the Lisbon Declaration are significant steps to support this vision.  I count on the European Union to help lead the way.  Together, we can build an open, free and secure digital future for all.

For information media. Not an official record.