July 8, 2024


Is the Global Digital Compact (GDC) a good idea?

With digital technology already ubiquitous, how are countries expected to govern in an increasingly digital world? How can we ensure that everyone can access a free and open internet? How can we ensure that people have the option to choose how their data is used? Above all, how can we ensure there’s a trustworthy internet?

These are hard questions, and the UN is tackling them with the Global Digital Compact (GDC). It’s a set of shared principles to outline an agenda for an open, free, and secure digital future. Representatives will review the latest draft of the GDC ahead of its adoption at the UN Summit of the Future in September. While the UN and its members are gung-ho about it, others see the GDC, in its present form, as a dystopian nightmare.


On the occasion of the UN’s 75th anniversary in September 2020, a political declaration was adopted on the importance of the UN. In 2021, the Secretary-General released the Our Common Agenda report, which proposed a GDC. It outlined the shared principles for an “open, free, and secure digital for all.”

The agenda covered digital connectivity, ways to avoid internet fragmentation, application of human rights online, and mechanisms for a trustworthy internet by introducing accountability criteria.

When the GDC was proposed, the world was in the throes of digital innovation, political polarisation, and an increasing digital divide. We’re now beginning to see issues like data security and regulating Artificial Intelligence come to the fore.

Since the 1980s, when the web came about, the landscape has shifted from open-source to increased deliberate, malicious actions, including state-sponsored hacking operations and the spread of false information. State and non-state actors see the internet as an invaluable tool to sow discord and chaos. That’s not limited to governments and society but even to corporations.

One of the challenges that has emerged over the past decade is relations between countries and blocs becoming increasingly complicated. Since 2013, in high-level government experts’ meetings, the UN has called for international laws, human rights and freedoms to apply to Internet and Communication Technology (ICT).

In 2024, some of these demands are being challenged. Russia doesn’t want human rights in the convention. It prefers individual states to take measures by their domestic laws. China largely agrees. On the other hand, the European Union (EU) wants a common approach to digital infrastructure security and management through public-private partnerships.

These different approaches risk fragmentation of the internet. The UN wants everyone to play by the same rules. Especially concerning sensitive issues like state surveillance, election interference, and human rights abuses.

The GDC aims to address all these issues and more; a tall order certainly. The latest draft, which members will discuss and debate, is important in achieving the UN’s goals on this topic. But is it any good?

VIEW: It’s got the necessary components

The GDC forms an important component of the Summit for the Future – an important meeting for intergovernmental discussions. The latest ‘zero draft’ is the foundational document. The focus is establishing common standards to combat harmful content on digital platforms. The digital trust and safety section calls for more collaboration among national online safety institutions. This allows them to exchange best practices and have a shared understanding of actions to protect privacy and freedom of expression.

Multistakeholder consultations form a big part of the draft. It’s the only way to combat harmful content and engage with diverse users, including, and, especially youngsters. References to cross-border data flows in the draft are necessary for an open internet. The draft gets it right on recognising the importance of open source. Digital Public Infrastructure has become an important part of the GDC. For it to be effective, it should be based on open standards and human rights protections.

The draft also calls upon social media platforms to provide online safety-related materials and safeguards for kids and teenagers. With enhanced reporting mechanisms for users and third parties to report violations, including special provisions for kids, swift action against online misconduct can be achieved. The GDC and the draft have the potential to create a brighter, more equitable, accountable, and democratic digital future.

COUNTERVIEW: It’s got it all wrong

The latest draft is concerning for several reasons. Broadly speaking, it would consolidate power within the UN and expand the reach of the UN and national governments over the digital realm, threatening the concept of an open and free internet. When the GDC was first introduced, it was met with concerns. Key among them was further centralisation and consolidation of digital governance issues in the multilateral system.

Now, on the surface, that might be a good thing. But the GDC would shift this away from a multi-stakeholder system to one where only nation-states vote. If you’re China, Russia, or North Korea, then it’s good news. Russia and China, in particular, have deliberately supported some of the vague concepts of cyber sovereignty that will surely come at the expense of human rights, civil society organisations, the private sector, and advocacy groups.

Among the concerning aspects is the UN wanting to constitute bodies to oversee aspects of digital governance. One controversial proposal is a UN mechanism for global data governance. There’s obviously a need for global cooperation on data governance, but a UN body to oversee it is a bad idea. It would empower governments, particularly authoritarian ones, to increase their censorship and surveillance capabilities. It’s one of the concerns outlined in an open letter signed by different organisations that develop standards on how the internet functions.

Reference Links:

  • Fostering Inclusivity in the Digital Era: Two Priorities for the UN’s New Global Digital Compact – Center on International Cooperation
  • The GDC zero draft: the good, the bad, and the ugly – DFR Lab
  • Why the Global Digital Compact’s focus on digital trust and security is key to the future of internet – World Economic Forum
  • UN’s Global Digital Compact is looking like an authoritarian dream – ASPI
  • Tech luminaries warn United Nations its Digital Compact risks doing more harm than good – The Register
  • The UN wants more multilateral regulation of the digital world. Democracies should be worried – ASPI
  • Internet Bodies Warn Against UN’s Centralized Internet Governance Plan – Medianama

What is your opinion on this?
(Only subscribers can participate in polls)

a) The Global Digital Compact (GDC) is a good idea.

b) The Global Digital Compact (GDC) is a bad idea.


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