High-level leaders track: Social development

16 Nov 2020 16:40h - 18:10h

Event report

The Internet – and related digital services – has showcased its resiliency and capability to maintain a semblance of normalcy during the pandemic. With access to the Internet, people have been able to work, learn, and play from home to continue business as usual as much as possible. Digital tools are also at the forefront of helping people during the unprecedented crisis. Ms Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka (United Nations Under-Secretary-General; Executive Director, UN Women) shared an example that with guidance from UN Women, Twitter launched a dedicated gender-based violence search prompt for hotlines and support in local languages in the Asia-Pacific region. However, the Internet has also become a disruptive force that has impeded efforts to counter the pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic was also labelled as an infodemic by the World Health Organization, highlighting the great extent to which misinformation and disinformation have shaped the discourse around the coronavirus. ‎Ms Gabriela Ramos (Assistant Director-General for Social and Human Sciences, UNESCO) underscored that UNESCO partnered with the EU to carry out a social media campaign, #thinkbeforesharing, to fight against fake news and conspiracy theories.

Some of the most adverse impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic were suffered by many who remain unconnected. Their fundamental human rights, including access to information, education, employment, health, and many more, have been taken away without warning. Mr Arunabha Ghosh, (Chief Executive Officer and Founder, Council on Energy, Environment and Water, India) emphasised the importance of affordability of the Internet and digital devices in order to allow every citizen to exercise their fundamental rights and benefit from values that a democratic society promises to deliver.

The international community aspires to ‘build back better’ from this crisis and further advance social development. The panellists agreed that digital technology will play a significant role in these efforts. ‎Mr Yong Li (Director General, United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO)) emphasised that digital technology is driving the fourth industrial revolution that contributes to global economic growth. Emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and drones, will improve the efficiency of the manufacturing industry.

Ms Claire Melamed (Chief Executive Officer, Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data) highlighted the power of data in helping policymakers to create and implement evidence-based policies and strategies. She noted that it is important for governments to establish a regulatory framework that develops public trust. Without public trust and consent, governments would not be able to make the most of data that they have. Co-operation from the private sector, particularly tech companies, will be crucial as the majority of data and expertise lie in the hands of corporations. ‎Mr Josh Kallmer (Head of Global Public Policy and Government Relations, Zoom Video Communications) underlined the tech sector’s tendency to be defensive when they interact with governments. Acknowledging that such an attitude may cost tech companies opportunities to use their products for social development, Kallmer said Zoom is actively working to understand the needs, priorities, and values of governments, and to align its products with the values of the public sector.

Meanwhile, scrutiny of big data and digital emerging technologies continues to intensify as we become more aware of its implications on privacy and ethics. Ramos signalled alarm that regulatory frameworks on AI and other emerging technologies are necessary. Mr Andrew Sullivan (Chief Executive Officer, Internet Society (ISOC)) proposed a cautious approach to regulating the Internet. He argued that regulations should not interfere with the ‘Internet Way of Networking’, through which different networks collaborate with each other in a decentralised system based on shared building blocks and create organic and open expansion of interconnectivity. Moreover, he said that he sees a tendency among regulatory bodies to not take this special architecture of the Internet into account. ISOC has developed the Internet Impact Assessment Toolkit to evaluate whether policy is appropriately designed to address and solve a particular issue without undermining the power and possibilities of the Internet. Given the human-centric nature of the Internet, it is critical to preserve the architecture that grants end-users the power to solve their problems.