UN’s Global Digital Compact is looking like an authoritarian dream
1 Jul 2024|

This week, global representatives to the United Nations in New York will review the latest draft of the UN Global Digital Compact (GDC). An initiative proposed by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to establish a framework for global digital cooperation, the GDC aims to set out shared principles for an open, free and secure digital future and accelerate progress on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Yet, as negotiations near completion ahead of its expected adoption at the UN Summit of the Future in September, the latest draft of the GDC is concerning. It would consolidate power within the UN, expand the reach of both the UN and national governments over digital matters and ultimately threaten the openness of the global internet.

Since Guterres first proposed the GDC, it’s been met with concerns. The secretary-general and the his envoy on technology seemed to emphasise the role of nation-states over the existing multi-stakeholder model. Critics feared the GDC would undermine established multi-stakeholder mechanisms, such as the World Summit on the Information Society and the Internet Governance Forum, or be commandeered by authoritarian regimes such as Russia and China as part of their efforts to shift internet and digital issues into the multilateral system.

UN consultations on the GDC and early drafts aimed to alleviate those concerns by emphasising the multi-stakeholder model of internet governance—which involves civil society, the private sector and the tech community on equal footing—and the need for the GDC to complement and not duplicate existing mechanisms.

Negotiations among member states on the GDC have been taking place over the past few months. The latest draft, released last week after June negotiations, includes several promising elements, notably, stronger support for the multi-stakeholder approach and language on upholding international law and human rights in the digital sphere.

However, it also contains several problematic proposals.

One is for the creation of a new office within the UN Secretariat to oversee digital and emerging technologies, facilitate system-wide collaboration and implement the GDC. That might sound wise, but, given the plethora of existing bodies already coordinating those issues, it’s unclear why a new office is needed. Moreover, the UN’s resources are stretched thin, and the funds allocated for the new office could arguably be better used elsewhere.

The draft also calls for the establishment of an international scientific panel on digital technologies but fails to specify its composition, its mandate or how it will interact with existing multi-stakeholder bodies. Similarly, the proposed Policy Dialogue on AI Governance focuses solely on UN member states, sidelining civil society, the private sector and the technical community. It’s also unnecessary: the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has long convened the AI for Good Global Summit, while the ITU and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization also convene the Inter-Agency Working Group on AI, which includes UN member states and UN agencies.

Another controversial aspect is the proposed high-level review mechanism of the GDC, which suspiciously resembles the previously slammed Digital Cooperation Forum (DCF). The DCF, put forward by Guterres in a policy brief in 2023, was widely criticised as an attempt to centralise power within the UN, sidelining existing multi-stakeholder governance structures such as the Internet Governance Forum. Although the DCF was dropped from the GDC, the high-level review mechanism is effectively its replacement in all but name. This shift in power towards the UN would disproportionately benefit states, especially authoritarian regimes, potentially leading to increased control and censorship.

The draft’s proposal for an annual report by the UN secretary-general on GDC implementation appears redundant and potentially counterproductive. Considering the numerous existing forums and mechanisms, including member states’ reporting on the GDC and the proposed new UN office, which would also oversee implementation, such a report seems unnecessary and duplicative. Also, it risks centralising power over digital issues within the UN Secretariat in New York, further disproportionately empowering member states at the expense of other stakeholders.

The latest draft of the GDC also introduces a surprising new and controversial proposal to explore a UN mechanism for international data governance, which wasn’t in earlier drafts. While the need for global cooperation on data governance is undeniable, establishing a UN body to oversee data governance raises significant concerns. Centralising UN and state control over data could empower governments, particularly authoritarian regimes, to increase surveillance and censorship, thereby legitimising their restrictive practices and potentially eroding privacy rights, freedom of expression and individual data autonomy.

The motivations behind the UN’s push for power over the digital realm are perplexing. Why is it so focused on centralising control? Why does it pay lip service to the multi-stakeholder model, and then do the opposite?

It could be interpreted as the outgoing secretary-general’s attempt to cement his legacy, given his personal proposal of the GDC and his subsequent investment in the process. Alternatively, it might be a power grab by the UN bureaucracy to expand its influence over the increasingly significant realm of technology and digital governance. However, the most concerning possibility is that the GDC is a response to the growing influence of authoritarian regimes within the UN system. China, in particular, has been strongly advocating for increased multilateral control within the GDC, aligning with its broader strategy to consolidate internet and digital governance under the auspices of the UN.

Ultimately, this makes the battle over the GDC’s final form not just a UN procedural matter or bureaucratic power grab, but a critical fight for the future of a free and open internet.