Skip to content

U.N. panel seeks to close the 'digital divide'

An independent U.N. panel co-chaired by Melinda Gates and Jack Ma released a report urging the world to make digital technology safer and more inclusive.

An independent U.N. panel co-chaired by Melinda Gates and Jack Ma released a report on Monday urging the world to make digital technology safer and more inclusive.

The report, entitled "The Age of Digital Interdependence,” concludes that humanity faces big risks at the dawn of the digital age from business exploitation, inadequate regulation and socioeconomic disparity.

"Digital technologies are rapidly transforming society, simultaneously allowing for unprecedented advances in the human condition and giving rise to profound new challenges," the panel's 47-page report begins.

"Growing opportunities created by the application of digital technologies are paralleled by stark abuses and unintended consequences. Digital dividends co-exist with digital divides," it says. "And, as technological change has accelerated, the mechanisms for cooperation and governance of this landscape have failed to keep pace."

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres established the panel in July 2018 out of concern about how fragmented the world has become in its approach to digital technology.

'Dawn of a new digital era'

Guterres said he hoped to find more ways to harness the digital age's potential for aiding the U.N.'s anti-poverty agenda through its 17 Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. The panel recommends, for example, making digital networks and financial and health services accessible for all adults by that time.

“Digital technologies can help the world’s poorest people transform their lives, but only if we are willing to address the inequalities that already keep them from fully participating in the economic and social lives of their countries,” said Gates, co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the world's biggest private charitable organization.

“Developing countries and marginalized communities must have a voice in deciding how these technologies are used," Gates, a former general manager at Microsoft, said in a statement. "That’s how we can guarantee that, instead of reinforcing old problems, digital technologies are a source of new solutions.”

The panel, however, also called on Guterres to review how human rights might be impacted globally and noted that social media and an erosion of privacy pose enormous challenges. It also urged tech companies to take human rights more seriously and world leaders to strengthen their multilateral cooperation.

"We are living at the dawn of a new digital era,” said Jack Ma, co-founder and executive chair of Alibaba Group, a multinational technology business. “Global cooperation among all parties — private sector, government, citizens, academics and civil society — is needed to use technology to achieve more prosperity, more opportunity, and more trust for people around the world."

Ma said the world also must focus "especially on making technology inclusive so more women, young people, rural populations, small businesses and developing countries can benefit. We also need to rethink our education systems so they will prepare our young people for the future, instead of for yesterday.”