Office of the Secretary-General's Envoy on Technology's informal discussion 'Advancing an inclusive digital economy: Opportunities for the Global Digital Compact?'

Statement by Rebeca Grynspan, Secretary-General of UNCTAD

Office of the Secretary-General's Envoy on Technology's informal discussion 'Advancing an inclusive digital economy: Opportunities for the Global Digital Compact?'

New York
07 March 2024

I would like to thank the co-facilitators Ambassador Enestrom and Ambassador Milambo for their hard work and leadership in the consultations and for their spirit of openness and inclusion of all perspectives that they have demonstrated time and time again.

UNCTAD was proud to host Ambassadors Enestrom and Milambo during our eWeek last December, where they briefed Geneva stakeholders on the plans and process for the Compact. This link between Geneva and New York is very appreciated by both sides, and I hope that this session today further contributes to this synergy.

I would also like to thank USG Gill for the initiative of this informal interactive discussion. It is always a pleasure to hear and learn from you, Amandeep.

Dear friends,

We gather at a critical juncture in human history – a moment filled with global challenges, but also brimming with technological possibilities.

At this crucial time, increasing debt, relentless natural disasters, and stagnating growth have left many developing countries struggling to tackle these growing challenges with limited resources with only 15 percent of SDGs on track to be met by 2030, and consecutive falls in human development since COVID. In this situation, the promises of science, technology and innovation are becoming the best path forward for many.

But, for this promise to materialize in solutions to these overwhelming economic, social, and environmental challenges, a coordinated and united global action is needed. Efforts within individual countries, while absolutely necessary, won't be sufficient. The Global Digital Compact is the best option we have in this context.

The Compact is envisioned as a bold declaration of shared principles for a digital future that is inclusive, sustainable, and upholds human rights. Development stands at the heart of this vision. Because bridging the digital divide is not simply a matter of access to devices and networks. It's a battle for opportunity, equity, and ultimately, the trajectory of human well-being in the 21st century.

We are witnessing technological leaps unlike anything in recent history. For policy makers and business leaders alike, this high rate of change means we are increasingly navigating unchartered waters. Artificial intelligence, blockchain, and the ever-expanding horizons of the Internet of Things are defining industries, labor markets, and the very nature of what it means to be productive.

But in times of rapid change, not everything changes at the same speed, so there is a danger that these marvels remain concentrated within a privileged few with the digital divide becoming wider between nations and within them. This may perpetuate existing inequalities and risks breeding new forms of marginalization fueled by algorithmic bias, lack of digital literacy in the population and capacities in the state.

Furthermore, the risks are real. From cybercrime to the dangers of disinformation and hate speech, we must face the technology's potential to harm communities and undermine progress. There are security issues, political interference, and a great unknown.

But the biggest risk of all is the risk of leaving billions of people in the developing world behind. In the past 10 years, 3 billion more people started using the Internet. However still in 2023, only 27 percent of people in low-income countries used the Internet. And average bandwidth in least developed countries is only 20 percent of the global average. This means that only some kinds of digital solutions can be effectively applied there.

We also need to create a more level playing field for companies to compete in the digital economy. Businesses of all sizes in developing countries should be able to create and capture value. Developing countries must not be relegated to just using, consuming, and importing ICT goods and digital services, but have the capabilities and opportunities to innovate, produce, add value and export in the digital economy.

The digital economy is in many areas characterized by a very high level of market concentration. This reflects the central role of data and digital platforms as drivers.

There are very few digital economy giants – with five platforms (Google, Meta, Amazon, Microsoft and Tiktok) earning more than 70 percent of all ad revenues worldwide. At the same time, less than a handful of countries account for half the world’s hyperscale data centres, the highest rates of 5G adoption in the world; 94 percent of all funding of AI start-ups in the past five years; 70 percent of the world’s top AI researchers; and close to 90 percent of the market capitalization of the world’s largest digital platforms.

Digital giants are strengthening their positions along the entire global data value chain – from data collection, transmission, storage, to data analysis, for instance by using AI. Their actions have implications for all parts of the world – but most countries have limited power to influence the outcome.

A related point here is the need to better understand the interface of digitalization and environmental sustainability.

While we often think of digitalization as something “virtual”, the reality is that our use of digital devices, networks and data centres generates a significant environmental footprint. This involves growing energy use and carbon emissions, high levels of water consumption, more raw materials extraction, and rising amounts of e-waste. UNCTAD will launch a report on this issue later this year.

Changes in the nature of digitalization also have to be considered. For example, increased reliance on generative AI, such as Chat GPT, is highly energy intensive and is leading to a need for more data centres and potentially higher greenhouse gas emissions. To give you an idea, a single ChatGPT query consumes 15 times more energy than a simple Google search. According to a paper from 2021, before the AI boom, Google’s AI department was using as much electricity as the whole country of Ireland. And between 2021 and 2022, in preparation for GPT3, Microsoft increased its water consumption by 1.7 billion gallons, or more than 2.500 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Dear friends,

We need a new global governance system that ensures that the activities of the world’s largest digital platforms and the growing reliance on data bring desirable outcomes for the world as a whole.

There is little doubt that the growing availability of digital data offers tremendous opportunities for the common good – in precision agriculture, in telemedicine, in financial Inclusion, and yes – in AI. But we must ensure equitable distribution of benefits and address risks related to development, including in terms of innovation opportunities, but also human rights and national security.

At our most recent UNCTAD meeting of the Intergovernmental Group of Experts on E-commerce and the Digital Economy, Member States called upon Governments and other stakeholders to collaborate on inclusive global governance of data, using contributions from international organizations, including the United Nations, and to find common ground for data to work for people and the planet, ensuring no one is left behind.

The Global Digital Compact is the best chance we’ve got to tackle these challenges in the most global and inclusive way possible – through discussions that are multilateral and consider multistakeholder concerns.

Current trajectories are not delivering on these objectives, and the balance is clearly tilted to a market too concentrated to ever be able to self-regulate. We also must recognize that there are vested interests at play. The quest for profits, geopolitical tensions, and the race to achieve technological superpower status can all challenge the notion of multilateral solutions to global challenges. Many of the implications of digitalization remain unknown.

Dear friends,

In view of the issues that I have already highlighted, we must use this opportunity today to ask ourselves some fundamental questions:

Are existing institutions fit for purpose and sufficient?

How can we benefit from the multistakeholder discussions of the Commission on Science and Technology for Development? Here, I am happy to say that CSTD Chair Ana Das Neves is with us virtually to share her thoughts with us.  The WSIS is also about to start, what can we lean from 20 years of experience?

And finally, how can we link up all these windows of momentum into a chain that leads us to the Summit of the Future? This 2024 will turn out to be a crucial year for the digital governance agenda.

At UNCTAD, through our presence in the UNCTAD New York Office and with the support of the full team in Geneva, we are happy to offer our expertise and support to the co-facilitators and to the full membership of a successful Global Digital Compact.

In closing, allow me to share three quick reflections.

First. Bridging the digital divide is not charity; it is an act of enlightened self-interest. When we unleash the potential trapped in disconnected communities, we will unleash a wave of growth and innovation that will be a huge boom for the world.

Second. Digital rights are human rights. To neglect access, privacy, and online safety is to diminish the very essence of human dignity in the modern age.

And third, lastly, the Global Digital Compact is a mirror. It reflects our fears of a future governed by unchecked technology, but more importantly, it reflects our hope for a future where technology truly serves humanity.

Thank you.