Focus Areas

Following its first in-person meeting, the Panel agreed to focus its initial consultations and research on three tracks:

Panel members deliberate in small discussion groups that meet virtually. To inform these deliberations, a wide-ranging consultation process was launched to gather the views of stakeholders around the world.

While subject to change and evolve, below are a few of the initial discussion questions around each focus area.

Discussion Questions

The rapid pace of technological change, particularly around developments in social media, the Internet of Things, and Artificial Intelligence (AI), has raised some difficult ethical questions and quandaries: How do we share the wealth gained through automation and digital transformation? To what extent should we allow machines to influence human behavior? And how should we manage the risks and unintended consequences of our technologies?

To tackle these knotty ethical questions, we first need to reconcile technology with our human values: the practices and standards of behavior that we judge to be important in life. What are the values we want to define the digital age, and which principles should lie at the heart of how we design, distribute, and use digital technologies?

Companies, governments and coalitions of organizations have confronted these questions by codifying some of the values governing their work. Google, for example, has outlined 7 principles guiding its technology development, while the Web Foundation recently released a set of principles for the Web. The UN system recently adopted a set of data privacy principles, and the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons agreed on a set of guiding principles for lethal autonomous weapons systems. Similarly, the EU Commission is working on ethical guidelines for AI.

Can we draw upon existing body of work on values and principles—whether enshrined in governmental documents and mission statements, or performed in our lived experiences—to collate and co-create a set of values for the digital age? A common grounding in human values can help us identify shared goals; foster greater cooperation across fields and disciplines; and empower us to tackle global challenges.

Some of framing questions for exploration include:

  • What are some of the human values which should be prioritized in the digital age?
  • Which standards of behavior should be elevated to the international level, enabling all stakeholders to come together to solve challenges and share in the benefits of the digital age?
  • What principles should underpin how we work together around digital policy challenges and opportunities?
  • How can these values be reflected in policy, regulation, and business? Could there be sector specific ways of embedding these values and principles in practice?

Digital technologies have the potential to revolutionize development outcomes around the world. For example, artificial intelligence can enable farmers to more accurately predict crop yield or help humanitarian actors better predict and prepare for the impacts of natural disasters; data analytics can empower urban planners to reduce traffic congestion and pollution; and mobile devices and applications help doctors and patients manage health issues.

But if the benefits of these technologies aren’t evenly distributed, or their unintended consequences not effectively managed, they may exacerbate inequalities or create new problems of their own.  And from a policy perspective, governments from both developed and developing countries – are overwhelmed by the speed of technological change as traditional policy-making processes and skills are not sufficient to keep pace.

How can we come together to prepare for the impact of digital technologies on development, ensuring that the most vulnerable people and places can capitalize on the benefits and avoid the risks?

The High-level Panel is exploring these themes through the lens of digital cooperation and reflecting on the following questions, among others:

  • Are current international collaborative frameworks and levers (e.g., sustainable development goals, development aid, aid for trade, etc.) sufficient to build the capacity of institutions and individuals to prepare them for the digital transformation?
  • What might new forms of cooperation in development look like? How should they be designed to help all stakeholders better leverage and distribute the benefits of digital technologies?
  • How the policymaking processes and the capacity of governments and international organizations be improved to address emerging digital policy issues?  How can digital policy issues be de-siloed and relevant stakeholders engaged more meaningfully?
  • What principles or values should underpin cooperative approaches to designing and developing technology, policy, and regulatory solutions that are inclusive, responsive to technological progress, and/or tailored to the context in which they are being implemented?

Thanks to breakthroughs in machine learning and the growing availability of computational power, data has become one of the most valuable resources in modern society. It’s been called “the lifeblood of the digital economy,” as it provides insights that can enhance productivity, planning, and decision-making in a myriad of sectors from education to health to marketing. As a result, we’re witnessing the emergence of new industries and innovations, from smart cities to data-driven healthcare, that are transforming how we work, receive an education, and go to the doctor.

But data’s power and proliferation is also raising new challenges. There is a growing distinction between the data “haves” and the data “have-nots” and a risk that data will perpetuate social biases and deepen inequalities. Recent scandals and data breaches have caused many to lose faith in the private sector’s ability to safeguard their personal data. Meanwhile, many governments are struggling to understand and derive benefits from data, while others consider regulating how data should be transferred and stored.

As data-driven technologies develop at unprecedented speed, it’s clear that traditional forms of regulation are no longer sufficient to address their social, economic, and political impacts. How can we ensure that data and data-driven technologies work for all?

The High-level Panel is exploring these themes through the lens of digital cooperation and reflecting on the following questions, among others:

  • What role do industry, government and civil society each need to play to capitalize on the benefits and mitigate the risks of data-driven technologies? How can we balance support for the development of new data-driven technologies with the concerns for privacy and security?
  • What does cooperation between stakeholder groups, and across borders, currently look like around the management of personal and other types of Data? How can incentives be better aligned for data data sharing and cooperation?
  • How can we improve the capacity of governments and international organizations to address data-related issues?
  • How can the potential of data and data-driven technology be used to advance the UN Sustainable Development Goals? What is best practice in the area of data and development – and what methods of cooperation have been found effective in this arena?

Almost every interaction in the digital realm relies on trust. People trust that when they log on to a government website to apply for a new passport, the service is authentic. Retailers and merchants trust each-other to buy and sell goods online. And we rely on mobile applications to send money to friends and family around the world.

In recent years, we’ve witnessed an erosion of the kind of trust our digital world is built on. Massive data breaches have made people worry about how their personal information is collected and used. Meanwhile, the proliferation of fake news and deep fakes raises suspicions about what we find online. Meanwhile, advances in cyber capabilities and autonomous weapon systems have made many states wary of new forms of international conflict.

Though understandable, circumspection, too, can be dangerous. It may encourage states to heighten security measure, which in turn may foster tensions about freedom of expression and access to information. In excess, it can cause us to reject technologies that can improve our health, enable individuals to rise out of poverty, or help us combat the very data breaches and crimes we fear.

Given these dynamics, how can we enhance digital security and trust for a more peaceful and secure world?

The High-level Panel is exploring these themes through the lens of digital cooperation and reflecting on the following questions, among others:

  • What are some of existing or emerging threats to digital security, trust, and stability? How have – and how could – companies, organizations and governments and academia worked together to counter them?
  • What are the responsibilities of different stakeholders (e.g., government, industry and civil society) in helping to ensure digital security?
  • What can each of these stakeholders do to foster greater cooperation and trust when it comes to digital policy challenges?
  • How can we embed trust-building measures into our policies, regulations, and norms?

Throughout history, new technological breakthroughs – from the advent of the automobile to nuclear energy – have been followed by the emergence of methods and mechanisms for addressing their social, economic, political, and legal impacts. These have included large-scale events to foster discussion and cooperation between stakeholders; guidelines, standards, and resolutions to standardize best practices; and regulations, treaties, and laws to stipulate norms of behavior.

Today, the rapid development of digital technologies has presented us with new challenges. To ensure the benefits of big data, for example, we must re-imagine how governments, businesses, and citizens share, transfer, and capitalize on it. Meanwhile, solving challenges like cyber attacks or data breaches that do not stop at national borders will require new modes of cooperation to enable rapid, cross-sector responses.

So far, we have seen many disparate methods and mechanisms emerge around digital technologies. Unlike the top-down policy mechanisms found in the radio, civil aviation and telecommunication sectors, these mechanisms are bottom-up, as in the case of domain name management. This highlights the need for greater coherence and coordination.

It appears that in their current form, many of the existing methods and mechanisms are no longer sufficient for developments in the digital age. What could new or reformed approaches to digital cooperation look like?

Some of framing questions for exploration include:

  • What are some of existing mechanisms of digital cooperation? How have they served us well, and where are they lacking?
  • Can these existing mechanisms be adapted to better serve us in the digital age? If so, how?
  • What new mechanisms can be imagined for the digital age?
  • How do we ensure a smooth interplay between new and existing policy mechanisms on global, regional, national and local levels?
  • How can bottom-up mechanisms, such as Internet standardisation and ICANN, be synchronised with existing legal and policy regulations (e.g. deal with situations such as impact of GDPR on ICANN domain name policies)?

Over the past decade, the rapid digitization of the economy has brought about innovation and productivity to many industries, and helped spread those gains across some sectors and geographies. For instance, an artisan in India can sell her goods to consumers abroad thanks to e-commerce, while a small-scale farmer in Uganda can take out a microloan to buy fertilizer to boost next year’s crop yield.

But the digitization of the economy is neither complete nor even: inadequate ICT infrastructure, persistent skills gaps, a lack of localization, and the dominance of large commercial players have undermined the participation of many citizens in the digital economy.

Critical parts of the “old economy” are still to benefit from digitalization. Meanwhile, the advent of new digital services has also engendered their own set of social and political challenges, forcing us to confront new questions around labour rights, competition, and worker displacement. And the technology industry itself lacks diversity in the workforce, and decision-making table.

Within this complex landscape, how do we ensure a more inclusive and equitable digital economy?

The High-level Panel is exploring these themes through the lens of digital cooperation and reflecting on the following questions, among others:

  • What are the key issues in the digital economy that require improved cooperation among stakeholders (e.g. governments, civil society organizations, businesses)?
  • What needs to happen in order to ensure the inclusion of marginalised groups, and address negative externalities in the digital economy?
  • How can stakeholders work together to provide redress for digitally displaced workforces?

Digital technologies are accelerating sustainable development and advancing well-being around the world. The internet has empowered people and communities around the world to express their opinions and earn a living; online learning has brought free and low-cost education to millions; and digital security tools have helped protect the lives and rights of journalists and activists.

But at the same time, digital technologies have the potential to deepen inequality and undermine human rights. At the hands of malicious actors, the internet can be wielded as a force for repression and control. Meanwhile, the rise of automation and data-driven technologies are eclipsing human decision-making power and replacing workers at a worrying pace, algorithms can amplify human biases and digital technologies have been used to destabilize democracies.

With these and other complex issues in mind, how can we protect human rights and human agency in the digital age?

The High-level Panel is exploring these themes through the lens of digital cooperation and reflecting on the following questions, among others:

  • What are the responsibilities of different actors to protect human rights and human agency in the digital age? (e.g. governments, industry, civil society players?) How are these roles changing?
  • What does cooperation around human rights challenges currently look like? What are some of the successful examples of multi-stakeholder cooperation around human rights in the digital age? What obstacles need to be overcome?


Discussion Group Summaries & Workshops