Digital Cooperation and Diplomacy:
The aerial view I wish I’d had from the beginning

[Edit: Don’t worry — the actual read time is not 17 minutes. Much of the article is taken up by a resources section]

Digital cooperation and diplomacy can mean many things. When I was appointed the People-Centered Internet’s Digital Cooperation and Diplomacy (DCD) Fellow, I needed to quickly make sense of an amorphous landscape of organizations, treaties, strategies, and theories that make up “DCD.” At first, I felt like I was running around gathering sticks and leaves, finding one organization here, one declaration there. Time passed, though, and through research and discussion, my understanding of it grew and I am now better able to see the bigger picture and some of the currents running through it. For people new to this arena, here is a general sketch of my observations. It is not the only way to look at it, but hopefully it will save you some time!

First, there is no agreement on what DCD is. Is it collective agreement on digital strategies, standards, and governance of digital technologies? Is it How to use social media for diplomats”? “How to create a new global governance system for digital affairs”? Is it the formation of specialized cooperative networks? There are many interpretations, depending on the context, and there seems to be no set definition or map.

To make sense of the subject, I needed to survey many subjects in tandem, and see how they came together — multilateralism, diplomacy, politics, ethics, communication, technology, and sustainable development. It was immediately clear that DCD encompassed more than just social media for diplomats. Given that policies are necessarily emergent because of the rapidly changing state of technology and it is still too early for common agreement on standards for DCD, I focused on cooperative networks and digital governance.

While DCD can encompass many things, one thing is certain: the world is at a critical inflection point. Digital cooperation has long existed, but the scale of the effort has not come close to meeting the dimension of the challenge. The global nature of the internet is at risk and there is a lack of global digital leadership. Stakeholders are scrambling to create relationships and new networks. Politically and logistically we are precariously perched between global cooperation and global fragmentation — fragmentation of approaches to technology adoption, responses, governance, legislation, regulation, and standards, with nations aligning along political lines. In an interview for the Financial Times, PCI Co-Founder Vint Cerf warned:

“Only a concerted joint global effort by governments, businesses, the technical community and civil society will produce a governance architecture that is as generic, scalable and transnational as the internet itself. No single actor or group of actors can solve this alone. In fact, uncoordinated efforts can make the problem even harder to solve and increase the potential for complex international legal conflicts.”

Digital cooperation has proven difficult in an era of such rapid technological change. No one is sure how to move forward because we don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow. Change is happening so quickly that it is hard to say what to do today given that tomorrow may be perhaps radically different, in terms of technology, regulations, politics, and the environment.

The UN is moving forward, however, and its work constitutes a centerpiece in the field. In 2018, as part of the UN’s Strategy on New Technology, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterrez convened a 20-member High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation, chaired by Melinda Gates and Jack Ma. The purpose of the panel was to “consider the question of ‘digital cooperation’ — the ways we work together to address the social, ethical, legal and economic impact of digital technologies in order to maximise their benefits and minimise their harm.”

The Panel made five recommendations in its final report:

  1. Build an inclusive digital economy and society

To put these recommendations into action, the UN convened thematic working groups to create a Roadmap for Digital Cooperation. A public discussion of the Roadmap took place in June of 2020, and the dialogue continued in September of 2020 in a series of online activities marking the UN’s 75th anniversary.

The UN Secretary-General will soon appoint a Technical Envoy and create an office to support the effort, as noted in Commitment 2 of his Strategy on New Technology. Appointing an envoy and moving ahead with the plans outlined in the roadmap will not be an easy task, however, given the global nature of the problem, the variety of actors involved, and the tension between democratic and authoritarian governments.

Outside of the groundswell of UN activities, Digital Cooperation is happening on many fronts. Organizations are reaching out to one another, asking for input on ideas, forming alliances, and considering blueprints for the future. The OECD and the EU have special directorates that are staying abreast of new technologies and their effects. In addition, the EU is building a digital diplomacy network, with the OSCE agreeing to take up digital cooperation. Denmark appointed the world’s first digital ambassador in 2017, and he is pushing for a general policy regarding digital on a regional level. Following and communicating DCD news and events are organizations like the DiploFoundation which operates the Geneva Internet Platform which hosts digital policy debates and carries out research and capacity development. Their Digital Watch Observatory is an excellent source of digital policy news and related resources.

DRIVERS BEHIND DIGITAL COOPERATION AND CHALLENGES FACED

Broadband Internet coverage is extensive, but many people cannot afford it. Over 96% of the world’s population lives within reach of a mobile signal, yet almost half of the world’s population remains unconnected. For instance, the ITU reports that 87% of people in developed countries are using the Internet, while 19% are using it in what the UN defines as the least developed countries (of which there are currently 47). On top of that, COVID-19 has magnified the world’s need for digital access and globally acceptable structures for digital governance as it has made Internet access critical for communication, work, and learning. More than ever, we need fair access so that every child has a chance to continue their schooling while COVID-19 keeps us at home. We need interoperable systems in order to facilitate trade, and we need adequate guardrails for the most vulnerable to avoid such disasters as online child abuse.

Organizations recognize the need to both stay abreast of current and future technologies and engage more closely with industry in order to navigate a quickly changing digital world. In the case of inter-governmental organizations like the UN and the World Bank, their competitive advantage in the past was their vast and deep experience, from which they drew to advise countries on what to do. Now, however, one cannot simply look to the past for answers. Doing right by your clients increasingly means knowing about technology and understanding what may work in the future, in addition to what has worked in the past.

National and sub-national government bodies are pressed to upgrade legacy systems and offer better information and services to the public, especially now, as we are faced with the devastating consequences of COVID-19. All levels of government are faced with the challenge of introducing new systems without further widening income gaps.

The number of organizations has mushroomed and policy domains overlap more and more, making cooperation a complex endeavor. In 1990 there were 37 intergovernmental organizations in the world, and by 2000 this number had grown to 400+, and the number continues to rise. Global institutions, regional organizations, national organizations, sub-national/regional organizations, and non-state actors (e.g., policy networks crossing national boundaries, NGOs, etc.) are all playing a larger role in DCD.

THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY IS RESPONDING

Diplomacy is shifting from a closed system of proprietary relationships to a more Open Source-type model with open and inclusive dialogue among organizations. Not long ago we had a diplomatic system with a fixed structure and well known protocols. Suddenly, with the world connected, and everybody weighing in on an increasing number of issues, we need new channels that span much more territory and reach many more people and organizations. Diplomats are exploring new networks of “digital diplomacy” to be able to negotiate the new territory. The German Foreign Ministry, for example, is in the process of assembling a corps of “digital diplomats.”

Inter-governmental organizations are opening up to new voices. Negotiations and cooperation in the digital age has opened up to include new players, on a new playing field. Many define this as “Multilateralism 2.0.” Voices from a multiplicity of organizations — intergovernmental, multilateral, NGOs, academia, industry, and others — have risen over the past decade and therefore they need new platforms and means to voice their concerns directly with the UN and other agencies.

Digital Cooperation has entered the speed dating phase: joining forces to create networks. No longer able to be the “experts in everything,” inter-governmental organizations and others are reaching out to form new relationships around specific technologies. As a UNESCO expert recently put it: “Organizations are in a ‘speed dating’ phase.” Digital Cooperation and Digital Diplomacy now involve everyone from intergovernmental organizations to corporate entities, to NGOs. While there might be friction at first, with many new partners starting to work together on various technology-related topics such as ethics and AI, or IoT and interoperability, soon these cooperative efforts will likely produce more informed and widely-accepted solutions to difficult questions.

Alliances are forming around single issues. Organizations are trying to build consensus and alliances, generally around single topics, like AI or Child Online Protection, partly because single issues have become complex and fast moving, and partly because it is too hard to get buy-in on a broad-based set of goals in the form of a treaty. Traditionally, treaties could take up to a decade to enact, and lacked signatories if there were political differences of opinion. As was pointed out in UN Roadmap launch discussions, countries can rally around single issues with more ease, and some issues, like Child Online Protection, are capable of gathering more support from most everyone.

Recent shift to favoring actions over words. Many organizations are tussling with governance issues around specific technologies. Now that many organizations have consulted broadly to create ethical principles for technology, they are starting to discuss actions needed to put the principles in motion, such as legal frameworks and more nuanced recommendations. For example, teams considering the ethical implications of Artificial Intelligence are realizing that their AI models need to be tailored to specific use cases. The OECD’s AI Systems Classification Framework, for instance, is being developed to provide a structure for assessing and classifying AI systems according to their potential impact on public policy. They developed this framework once they realized that some cases required more stringency and guidance for inclusion than others.

The consolidation of efforts and data. Organizations are coming together for help, strength, and information-pooling. They are coming together around specific topics, to work collaboratively, share expertise, and pool data — forming blocs and not reinventing the wheel in every country. For instance, the Digital Nations is a mini-lateral engagement of ten nations sharing expertise on digital governance systems; the DQ Institute is working to consolidate and harmonize child online safety data; ITU and DIAL are partnering to share building blocks for digital investment with developing countries; IEEE is fostering collaboration on a global database of social impact measurement in its ICSIM program, and many others. (At the end of this article you will find an annotated list of some resources as well as links to several databases.)

THE WAY FORWARD

We need to extend a hand to the naysayers. As noted by The Group of Women Leaders in their UN 75 discussion “UN75: The Future We Want, the UN We Need,” it is not the case that everything is rosy and we love to work together with the current multiplicity of actors. Facing those we disagree with is more important than ever. It is because we don’t get along that we need to reach out and understand the disagreement. Stakeholders are not just the people and organizations in agreement about something. Consideration for all interests is even more important today because of our increased global connectedness through technology. A fracture in relations could have greater ramifications given how interdependent we have become.

Listening holds great potential. With the fast pace of innovation, the vast amount of reorganization, and the number of new relationships, organizational listening skills will be paramount. Increasing polarization of opinions and approaches means that the ability to carry on meaningful and productive conversations is critical, at both the individual and organizational levels. In the leadup to its 75th anniversary, the UN put a survey on their homepage to gather input on what citizens of the world felt were the most pressing issues of our time and what we should do about them. Due to an overwhelmingly positive response, the organization is planning on turning the survey into a permanent input mechanism.

New channels of communication are being created to augment the current diplomatic system. Technology has brought us the means to share our thoughts and organizations are only beginning to work out ways of effectively listening to a much wider range of actors. Moving forward, it will be important to work with not only those who agree with us, but also listen to those voices of dissent. The ability to tackle our current situation of potential digital fragmentation and lack of cooperation rests on being able to keep the lines of communication open. Nonpartisan platforms for civic engagement and governing, like PopVox.com for example, offer digitally-enabled lines of communication between policymakers and constituents. In a similar vein, the German Foreign Ministry is working with experts in the Global Design Thinking Alliance to design new modes of communication for diplomats.

When putting together guidance notes around various technologies, organizations like the UN, OECD, EU, UNESCO, and others can increasingly rely on peer- and stakeholder-based processes like Requests For Comments (for example) to solicit broad input from industry, technologists, academics, and policymakers.

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In the end, Digital Cooperation and Diplomacy is not all about technology. It is really a question of matching community needs with public policy. New technologies and digital processes will introduce an array of uncertainties when first deployed. We need creative diplomacy that can seize the challenges. The Internet spread rapidly around the world because it was adopted by people and institutions in a cooperative manner. Likewise, digital cooperation and diplomacy initiatives must be accessible, trust-worthy, and people-centered, based on alliances and networks, collective sandboxes, and shared databases. Better listening, new modes of interaction, and a focus on interoperability will help ensure that technological progress can be inclusive.

I hope this consolidation of thoughts around digital cooperation and diplomacy has helped you gain a better sense of the landscape. It is by no means the only way of looking at it, but hopefully it will help you explore a complex subject, spark some discussions, and get involved.

Kristin Little was the Digital Cooperation and Diplomacy Fellow at the People-Centered Internet from June-November, 2020. Co-founded by Vint Cerf and Mei Lin Fung, The People-Centered Internet works to make sure that the Internet is a positive force for good, improving the lives and well-being of people around the world. Through global initiatives, it promotes connectivity, fights disinformation, adds to the discussion about technology ethics, supports the development of people-centered applications and initiatives, advises policymakers, and leverages technology to help communities be more resilient. Kristin is also Senior Manager of Public Affairs at IEEE, working to build meaningful connections and common understanding between the technical and policymaking communities. She has 14+ years of prior experience with the World Bank, conducting global research focused on helping to improve policies and resource allocation.

A FEW RESOURCES

Diplo Foundation

“Towards more inclusive and effective diplomacy.” Diplo is a non-profit foundation established by the governments of Malta and Switzerland that stays on top of global digital cooperation and diplomacy affairs and provides a good summary of digital politics. They say: “You receive hundreds of pieces of information on digital politics. We receive them, too. We decode, contextualise, and analyse them. Then we summarise them for you.” They have capacity development, events, courses, research, and this page will take you to a wealth of Digital Diplomacy resources. The last Tuesday of every month, Diplo’s Internet governance briefings provide information about Internet Governance and Internet Policy developments around the world. Diplo operates the Geneva Internet Platform, which hosts digital policy debates and carries out research and capacity development. Their Digital Watch Observatory is an excellent source of digital policy news and related resources.

ITU

ITU is the United Nations specialized agency for information and communication technologies (ICTs). It has 13 Regional offices driving ICT and Internet connectivity. PCI is working on Global Connectivity and a Digital Help Desk with ITU.

To see how ITU and the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL) are planning to use digital cooperation to help developing countries move forward digitally to help meet the SDG goals, watch this short, well-made video about the Digital Investment Framework.

This publication (SDG Digital Investment Framework — A whole-of-Government Approach to Investing in Digital Technologies to Achieve the SDGs) beautifully elaborates the ideas with infographics that immediately bring the ideas to life.

LessWrong (one of my favorite links on this list)

This is a rich and deeply thoughtful community space to, as they say, 1) develop and train rationality, and 2) apply one’s rationality to real-world problems. LessWrong describe themselves as “an organization attempting to build community, culture, and technology which will drive intellectual progress on the world’s most pressing problems.” One recent thread especially pertinent to Digital Cooperation and Diplomacy is “Where do (did?) stable, cooperative institutions come from?”

Living Room Conversations

If you would like to work on your personal listening skills, as well as facilitate discussions of topics that are difficult for people to agree on, Living Room Conversations offers a blueprint for this. It can help you get conversations started at the grassroots level. As they say, “Healing divides starts with conversations.”

OECD AI Policy Observatory

The OECD Observatory is one of the richest sources of information on artificial intelligence policy and policy research. They have created an interactive database of over 300 AI policies and initiatives from over 60 countries and they have organized a world of research, news, and trends.

New Realities in Foreign Affairs: Diplomacy in the 21st Century

Thoughts on digital diplomacy from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

Oxford University Research Project on Digital Diplomacy

This blog is part of an Oxford University research project on digital diplomacy. There are many articles, but here is a post on Selfie Diplomacy. You can also follow along on Twitter (@Ilan_Manor)

The Social Media-Focused Diplomacy of Andreas Sandre

For a social media focus, you could follow Andreas Sandre on Twitter (@andreas212NYC). He is the author of the book “Digital Diplomacy: Conversations on Innovation in Foreign Policy” and he heads a series of events on digital diplomacy at the Italian embassy in Washington DC. If you want to know more, you can check out his articles on Medium, or read a review of his book.

UN 75th Anniversary

The UN marked this milestone anniversary with a series of online events during the fall of 2020. The occasion had three themes: 1) What is the kind of future that we want? 2) Are we on track to get to that future? 3) What actions do we need to bridge the gap between where we are headed and where we want to go? Global citizens could weigh in on these questions through a survey form on the UN website. You can still take the one minute survey. In fact, because of the success of the effort, they have adopted this method of gathering input from around the world, and will be using it to inform their direction moving forward. Also, here is a podcast about the UN 75th featuring Fabrizio Hochschild-Drummond, Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on the Commemoration of the United Nations 75th Anniversary.

University of Wageningen Portal on Multi-Stakeholder Partnerships

This group not only has a guide to designing and facilitating multi-stakeholder partnerships, but they have over 60 process tools to help in that endeavor. The link above has a video that has a short, useful, and clear explanation of the current state of affairs with multi-stakeholder partnerships.

The Concept of Collaborative Truth-Seeking

This approach could aid any one of us in moving forward with new ideas, and working with the panoply of actors currently striving for Digital Cooperation.

Various Databases Related to DCD

CORD-19

This is a “free resource of more than 280,000 scholarly articles about the novel coronavirus for use by the global research community” from the Semantic Scholar team at the Allen Institute for AI, partnered with leading research groups.

The COVID-19 Research Explorer

This is a “semantic search interface on top of the COVID-19 Open Research Dataset (CORD-19), which includes more than 50,000 journal articles and preprints.” The tool has been designed with the goal of “helping scientists and researchers efficiently pore through articles for answers or evidence to COVID-19-related questions.”

The Data Diplomacy Project

“DiploFoundation’s research project on Data Diplomacy, commissioned by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland, provides an overall analysis of the impact of big data on diplomacy and international affairs. The Data Diplomacy project includes policy research, data policy seminars, and other activities.”

Emer2gent

Established by Rolls-Royce, the alliance will “combine data from different sources to create insight and practical applications to support governments and organisations around the world.”

G20 Insights

The G20 is collecting overarching visions to “help policymakers think about the principles for designing policies and help them communicate policies to the public. The Visions aim to align the policy objectives of different G20 member states.”

Global Digital Health Partnership Initiative

Global collaboration on digital health efforts to promote interoperability in the future.

The Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data

The Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data is a “network of more than 260 partners committed to using data to improve lives and support the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.”

Humanitarian Encyclopedia

“A collaborative online platform to co-produce and apply knowledge to guide future humanitarian responses.”

IBM Knowledge Graph of COVID-19 Research

More information on the Knowledge Graph here.

The Massive Data Institute

“The Massive Data Institute at Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy harnesses modern data and computing power to produce cutting edge research and improve public policy decision making.”

The Seshat Global History Databank

This databank “systematically collects what is currently known about the social and political organization of human societies and how civilizations have evolved over time. This massive collection of historical information allows us and others to rigorously test different hypotheses about the rise and fall of large-scale societies across the globe and human history.”

World Bank + Google Cooperation on Development Information

“The popular search engine has joined forces with the World Bank in sharing development data through the Data Finder, featuring 17 development indicators based on information provided by the World Bank to make the easy to understand information accessible to a broader audience. The public data tool is exceptionally easy to use and is excellent for comparative research or exploration of data over time. The indicators are as diverse as carbon dioxide emissions, fertility rates, GDP growth, and number of internet users.”

WSIS Stocktaking Database

“The WSIS Stocktaking Database as a publicly accessible system providing information on ICT-related initiatives and projects carried out by governments, international organizations, the business sector, civil society and other entities with reference to the 11 WSIS Action Lines outlined in the Geneva Plan of Action.”

Do you have more Digital Cooperation and Diplomacy resources? Please add them in the responses and we can all benefit. Thanks!

Building connections between the technical and policymaking communities, Kristin works for IEEE, and has 14+ years’ prior experience with the World Bank.