Advances in technology are powering economies, influencing politics and shaping our social lives, but they are also introducing new risks to individuals, communities, humanity and planet Earth. Our international policies and multilateral cooperation are not keeping pace with this challenge. To advance international cooperation on digital and tech issues, multilateral institutions must crowd in, look out and commit now.
How did global policymaking become dominated by tech? In the words of Ernest Hemingway’s character Mike Campbell in The Sun Also Rises, “Gradually, then suddenly.” We might place the precise moment in August 2018.
That summer, one question was on the mind of market analysts: which public tech company would be the first to cross the trillion-dollar line? It was a close race between Apple and Amazon, but on 2 August 2018, Apple became the world’s first publicly traded trillion-dollar company by market capitalisation.[_] It was joined by Amazon two months later. Microsoft and Alphabet were not far behind.[_]
Then, just two years after it became a trillion-dollar company, Apple doubled its market capitalisation, becoming a two-trillion-dollar company. And just 18 months later, in early 2022, the company reached an astronomical three-trillion-dollar market value. In 2021, the company’s revenues of $366 billion put it on par with some of the world’s top global markets, larger than Egypt, Norway and Singapore, among others.
The transformation had been under way for some time, but the ascendance of multiple trillion-dollar tech companies confirmed the world’s arrival in a tech-dominated age, in which technology is the engine for new opportunities and change across nearly all aspects of society: technology increasingly powers the economy, influences the political world and serves as the conduit for social lives.
Alongside this change, new risks have emerged that threaten to exacerbate inequality, harm human rights and freedoms, undermine elections and political processes and make the world less secure. The accelerating speed of technological innovation is outpacing our means to understand their implications. As Azeem Azar reflects in his recent book The Exponential Age, “New technology is changing the world, and yet misunderstandings about what this tech is, why it matters, and how we should respond are everywhere.”
And if the world is awash with digital misunderstanding, it’s no wonder that global institutions and mechanisms for developing a shared sense of the “rules of the road” – the policies, norms and laws to govern how we will develop and use digital technologies – are similarly behind. The result is a yawning multilateral normative and policy gap.
This policy gap threatens to create the worst of all worlds, leaving humanity less secure and less equal, with fewer rights and less human agency. Although many of the regulations and enablers of digital technologies lie at national and even subnational levels, there are crucial questions that require cooperation across nations and sectors to realise the opportunities offered by new technologies while protecting against their risks. At stake in multilateral policy settings are some of the most consequential questions of our time and ones that no single actor can answer, from how we can avoid further fragmentation of the internet, protect human rights online and close the global digital divide. Decisions made today and in the coming years will reverberate through the 21st century, shaping the digital world for future generations.
This essay explores the growing multilateral technology policy gap, provides an overview of current forms of multilateral policy experimentation, and identifies a series of opportunities to narrow the multilateral tech-policy gap in the coming years to realise a more equitable and secure digital future.
Even before 2018, digital technologies had become central to participation in much of socioeconomic life and were already a significant geopolitical force. The Covid-19 pandemic only served to accelerate these trends as work, school, healthcare, government services and social lives all moved online.
But the accelerating pace of digital achievement is outpacing our means for understanding their implications and setting rules for their use. Even as new technologies offer greater connectivity within and across borders, and open new opportunities and efficiencies, they also introduce new risks and harms. From intrusive surveillance technologies to social media platforms that optimise for engagement, as well as predictive algorithms used in law enforcement and criminal-justice systems, new digital and technology systems are being used in ways that cause real world harms, amplify bias and discrimination, and threaten human rights. Again, Covid-19 underscored the risks: our increased dependence on digital fuelled a “cyber pandemic” of attacks, surges in online hate speech, mis- and disinformation and harassment.
Although many decisions for how to develop and use digital technologies will be made at the national and subnational levels, crucial questions on the future of the digital world rely on international cooperation and multistakeholder cooperation. More actors, at more levels, are involved today than ever before. At stake are some of the most consequential questions of the 21st century:
How can we preserve an open and global internet, particularly for those who are not yet connected and for future generations?
How can we protect human rights and freedoms while protecting against online harms?
How can we ensure the internet is a safe and trustworthy space?
How can we keep people and human interest at the centre of the development and deployment of new technologies?
Three features of the tech-dominated age make it more challenging to forge new agreements and rules for how we will use digital and other new technologies.
First, these events are playing out against the backdrop of growing geopolitical contestation, especially between the United States and China as the two countries vie for the privilege to set the vision and rules for the 21st century. Technology is one crucial domain of strategic competition between great powers. The European Union is also working to set rules that apply within the single market, but with global ramifications. Individual nations are articulating new strategies for digital and tech, and appointing diplomatic representatives on cyber and tech. Yet, as recent analysis from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change shows, although nations recognise the importance of digital and tech diplomacy, they still lack an integrated strategy to how digital and tech play across foreign-policy objectives and priorities. Moreover, there is a growing gap between major powers and countries at an earlier stage in their digital transformation.
Second, developing new means for governing digital technologies requires reaching agreement not only among countries, but also with large tech companies – themselves so powerful that they are able to challenge some of the roles that were previously the domain of states – along with civil society, social movements, technical experts and others. Each of these sectors exercises unique levers needed for international cooperation, but working across these sectors is more complex than the admittedly complicated exercise of forging agreeing between governments.
Third, much of the governance of digital technologies has traditionally taken place in highly specialised forums that bring together technical experts, for instance the technical standards and protocols that allow the internet to operate as a global network. As new technologies have become a strategic concern of international policymaking, the centre of gravity for these discussions is moving from highly technical bodies to highly political ones. Although policymakers have become more attuned to the opportunities and risks of new technologies, this shifting terrain, especially when set against geopolitical divides and a growing cast of relevant stakeholders, further complicates multilateral tech cooperation.
Yet without determined action now to close the policy gap, we risk realising the worst of all worlds. The absence of policy and agreed norms leaves a vacuum that corporations step in to fill or are pushed to fill. National approaches focus on supremacy, splintering global networks in the process. Human rights are trampled in the process, with marginalised groups more likely to be targeted online. Unequal access entrenches a world of have-nots.
How can multilateral cooperation help us avoid a race to the bottom and build a better digital future?
Even as the technology policy gap has widened since 2018, existing international institutions have taken on new roles to enhance global cooperation and address shared digital and tech challenges. Alongside these shifts, a series of new formats for international cooperation has also emerged.
Roles and Functions of Existing Institutions
First, and perhaps most obviously, international organisations serve as arenas for rulemaking and norm development on tech and digital issues. This entails many of the traditional functions of international law and cooperation, including articulating international law and agreements between states. This role also means that international organisations serve as spaces for contestation between states and blocs as well as for articulating and clarifying positions. International institutions have served this role for many years: for example, the International Telecommunications Union was established in 1865 to manage the world’s first international telegraph networks. The UN General Assembly has organised groups of government experts on responsible state behaviour in cyberspace and implications for international security for nearly 20 years. But the growth of new technologies has also expanded the breadth of issues where they serve as spaces for developing new rules.
In the world of digital and tech, this also includes the roles of standard-setting to develop agreed specifications for how the internet and other digital technologies should operate, allowing devices and applications to work together across globally connected and interoperable networks. This role also includes softer forms of governance via informal groups like the G7 and G20, where digital and tech issues have taken on increasing prominence. For instance, G7 leaders committed to deepen cooperation across a range of digital and tech issues, including standards in the 2021 G7 summit communiqué. This also includes strategies for cooperation or integration such as the African Union’s Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa and ASEAN’s Digital Masterplan 2025.
Second, international organisations serve as convenors of stakeholders across sectors, bringing together government officials with civil society, academia, technical experts and multiple private-sector industries. This is in part an acknowledgement that even understanding these complex issues requires expertise across sectors, but it is also recognises that governments alone cannot solve crucial tech challenges and that effective responses require action from other sectors. The Internet Governance Forum, for instance, brings together stakeholders across sectors on critical internet questions and opportunities, including through its annual meeting and regional conferences.
Third, international organisations, often directly through their leaders, act as normative and moral authorities, exercising their voice and using their pulpit to call for collective action to realise and share the benefits offered by new technologies and to guard against their risks. The UN secretary-general, for instance, has repeatedly called for a ban on lethal autonomous weapons systems. He has also called for internet access to be a human right and has warned against the risks of digital fragmentation and a splintering of the internet. The secretary-general also plays an important role as a mediator, particularly to prevent or resolve conflicts. Although this role has traditionally been focused on physical conflict, it can also extend to the cyber and digital domain. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has also used her office and voice to warn of the risks of AI and other new digital technologies and to call for cooperation to develop and implement new safeguards to protect rights.
Fourth, international organisations act as data and knowledge hubs, collecting and analysing data related to global digital issues to help the world better understand the state of digital adoption and to identify opportunities and risks. The UN plays this role across a number of digital and tech dimensions, from digital development to internet access for education, and from cyber policies to human rights and digital technologies. Other international organisations are also working to create data and knowledge resources on digital and tech issues, including the World Bank and OECD. International organisations also use this knowledge to support capacity building in member countries.
Finally, international organisations are innovators and pilots of new tech solutions, building and deploying digital tools to improve their own work and to support the digital transformations of countries around the world. The UN is using mobile money to deliver assistance in global emergencies, blockchain for land registration and AI for social media scanning to inform early warning analysis, to name just a few applications. The organisation also provides a suite of supports to member states, from digital capacity building to boosting digital inclusion. The World Bank is contributing to the rollout of digital identification systems around the world while the IMF is seeking to deepen its support for countries developing digital currencies.
These roles are not mutually exclusive: most international institutions play more than one, as illustrated above. But they are also not in complete harmony. International organisations must navigate tensions that can emerge across these functions – for instance, using the normative and moral authority of the institution to speak truth to power while also serving as an arena for rule-making and as a convening space. This is especially true when set against geopolitical tensions and divisions between democratic and authoritarian states, with a host of “swing states” in between.
New Initiatives to Develop Multilateral Tech Rules, Policy and Cooperation
As existing institutions are adapting their roles to respond to the opportunities and challenges of new technologies, we are also seeing a host of new initiatives and partnerships emerge to respond to specific aspects of the policy gap and to bring together new constellations of actors to craft shared visions and rules for the digital future.
In 2018, the UN Secretary-General convened a High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation, co-chaired by Melinda Gates and Jack Ma and bringing together government officials, private-sector leaders, civil-society activists and leading academics to develop proposals to improve international cooperation to realise the benefits offered by digital technologies and to protect against their risks. The secretary-general used the group’s final report, “The Age of Digital Interdependence”, as the basis for a multi-stakeholder follow-on process that brought together more than 100 actors into eight roundtable groups to take forward the panel’s recommendations and offer input to the secretary-general’s Roadmap on Digital Cooperation, released in 2021. Although developed at the direction of the UN secretary-general, the process has intentionally framed both the risks and opportunities as broader than the UN system and has encompassed a range of non-UN actors. The establishment of a technology envoy position and office at the UN reflects an institutional interest in playing a role in this domain, especially given the secretary-general’s proposed Global Digital Compact, to develop “shared principles for an open, free and secure digital future for all”.
The OECD’s principles on AI were adopted by OECD members in 2019, along with several other countries, including Argentina, Brazil and Ukraine. The principles were developed by an expert group bringing together government officials, the private sector, labour leaders, civil society, academics and scientists. They are intended to guide the responsible development and use of trustworthy AI, and focus on sustainability, human rights, transparency, safety and accountability. The principles are accompanied by five recommendations for governments. They served as the basis for the G20 AI principles, endorsed in 2019: an important step given the participation of China, Russia and India, among others in the G20.
The Global Partnership on AI (GPAI) was launched in 2021 to promote and develop trustworthy AI, stemming from a joint Canadian-French proposal developed during their successive G7 presidencies. Membership is limited to countries that commit to the values reflected in the OECD’s AI principles, and 24 countries plus the European Union have joined so far. The partnership’s work is multi-stakeholder and seeks to boost international cooperation on the development of responsible AI, with an initial focus on four themes: responsible AI, data governance, the future of work, and innovation and commercialisation. GPAI also added a subgroup on AI and pandemics, recognising the important role of privacy-protecting AI for Covid-19 response and to aid in preventing and responding to future pandemics.
The Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace was launched in 2018 in the wake of devastating cyberattacks in 2017 that crippled global internet networks, international shipping and government services, and inflicted billions of dollars in damages. The Call built on industry proposals for advancing new cybersecurity norms[_] and brings together governments with companies, subnational actors and civil society around shared commitments on cybersecurity. The Call now counts among its supporters more than 80 countries, 36 public authorities and local governments, nearly 400 civil society organisations and 700 companies that commit to nine principles, including to protect individuals and infrastructure and to promote the implementation of international cybersecurity norms. Most recently, the US and EU announced they would join the Paris Call, an endorsement of the role of the initiative in advancing their aims for a more secure cyber world. In 2020, six working groups were formed with multi-stakeholder leadership to expand the number of stakeholders involved, to advance international norms and to promote a multi-stakeholder approach in UN cybersecurity discussions. The Paris Call also inspired the Christchurch Call to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online in 2019 after the horrific livestreamed terrorist attack against two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.
In the near future, the US is set to launch an Alliance for the Future of the Internet, intended to bring together like-minded democratic countries to develop a shared vision of the internet that protects democratic values and human rights. This follows the launch in 2021 of the UK Future Tech Forum and the Danish Tech for Democracy initiative, both intended to foster new models of cooperation across democracies to ensure digital technologies support open and democratic societies.
In addition to these initiatives, we have also seen sector-specific efforts to advance new rules to close the policy gap. In some instances, the tech industry is taking the lead to set out rules for its own use of technology in the absence of legislation, for instance the recent launch of the Trusted Cloud Principles. In other cases, civil society is leading, for instance, to fight government internet shutdowns through the #KeepItOn coalition. There are also important areas where companies and civil society are working together to call for government-led action, including a recent joint letter that sets out principles for protecting an open, interconnected and interoperable internet.
Where Does This Leave Us?
What can we learn from these efforts since 2018 to develop new forms of governance and new ways of working to develop rules of the road for digital and other new technologies?
First, much of this work is deliberately multi-stakeholder, engaging governments but also the private sector, civil society and other experts. This is in part a reflection that much of the expertise on these questions lies outside multilateral institutions. For instance, in his 2018 strategy on new technologies, the UN secretary-general notes that the UN is “not an obvious interlocutor on emerging technologies” for many stakeholders across the private sector, civil society and governments, and that the UN “must humble and continue to learn”. But this is also because companies, civil society organisations, academic institutions and others are crucial actors in implementing policy responses.
Yet bringing in voices from across sectors also complicates matters. Some states are sceptical of multi-stakeholder governance, especially as it relates to cyber and tech issues, and recent experience at the UN shows that these states will resist even having companies and civil society in the room. Civil-society organisations, meanwhile, warn against the risk of corporate capture, especially given the huge growth of a small group of large tech firms. Corporate actors bristle at expectations that they should fund work without providing input to its substance.
Second, we see that much of this work is done in groups of like-minded actors, with western countries, civil-society organisations and companies overwhelmingly represented in these forums. This offers the opportunity to develop more ambitious agreements than would be possible in universal settings, especially given divergent views on problem definitions and animating values. However, if not developed in an inclusive manner, these approaches can risk further fragmenting the internet or excluding actors and countries that may be at an earlier stage in their digital transformations, as well as representatives of those who are not yet online, still nearly half of the world’s population. Moreover, voluntary and non-universal forums may mean that some of the most consequential actors choose not to participate. Practically, engaging in multiple policy initiatives also requires resources and personnel, which risks limiting participation to only the most privileged voices in each sector.
Third, across existing institutions and new experiments in multilateral tech governance, the pace of new efforts is faster, but still not fast. Although these new initiatives can move faster than many traditional forms of governance and policymaking, they are not keeping pace with new technological developments. In some instances, these initiatives are directly responsive to real world events, like the Paris and Christchurch Calls. Even when initiatives are not responding to specific events, developing new ways of working together especially when these are intentionally multi-stakeholder, can and does take time. It is not inherently bad that multilateral tech policy lags behind development, especially because policy and rules at an early stage could be misaligned with how the technology is deployed, but a purely responsive approach risks entrenching a “move fast and break things” world.
Fourth, many of these initiatives are aspirational or softer governance. This allows actors to develop shared visions and principles for how technologies should be used and to develop new partnerships for realising these goals. These efforts also often include voluntary working groups to facilitate implementation, which is helpful to maintain momentum, but there are few, if any, examples of members being evicted from groups or initiatives for failing to adhere to agreed commitments or values and there is little in the way of accountability mechanisms for ensuring that the collective effort will deliver the agreed vision and mission. There is real value in bringing together actors across sectors to define a problem and collectively develop a solution set. Yet this means that these initiatives are typically less able to exercise accountability and enforcement of agreements. Some of this reflects the traditionally bottom-up and participatory nature of internet governance, with strong input from civil society and the private sector.
As tech companies have grown to rival the size of countries, multilateral institutions have begun, if belatedly, to adapt their roles in response and to close the multilateral policy gap. Three related opportunities will ensure that multilateral organisations stay relevant and are able to play their five crucial roles: they must crowd in, look out and commit now.
First, to be credible, multilateral tech-governance initiatives will need to be not only multi-stakeholder, but also far more inclusive. Although bottom-up and voluntary governance initiatives offer important benefits, the centrality of digital tools and policies to individuals, communities and human society means that we can no longer leave it to those who are interested to find their way to decision-making tables. Instead, we need to create intentional paths for input and participation by communities and stakeholders that are under-represented, or, in the case of future generations, cannot be directly represented in policy discussions.
This does not mean that there is not a role for regional initiatives and coalitions of like-minded actors, but it does mean that in crafting these efforts, explicit attention should be given to enabling the broadest possible coalition while protecting and promoting values. After all, although we all lose out on the best possible future, those on the wrong side of the digital divide stand to lose the most from decisions today that, for instance, further splinter the internet or jeopardise rights and freedoms online. Where and how can we form new coalitions, including with digital deciders, to build a more inclusive digital future?
Second, a crucial question for the future of multilateral technology policy is how to move from a reactive and responsive approach to a more anticipatory approach that incorporates a better understanding of trends and data to better see around the corner with respect to what rules, protections and enablers may be needed. Here, the Tony Blair Institute proposal for a multi-stakeholder panel on internet policy holds important promise and could be complemented by partnerships to bring together the best of research and data on the implications of fast-moving emerging technologies and applications. International organisations can play an important role in convening experts across sectors to inform a more anticipatory approach and may also play a role in information sharing and coordination across experts and initiatives amid an increasingly complex landscape.
This also entails focusing on processes. Standards offer a flexible and multi-stakeholder means of governing fast-moving technology developments. Although much attention has been given to China’s recent increased engagement in standards-setting and with development organisations, there are no barriers for deepened engagement by western countries or other stakeholders. As Fiona Pollack and Emily Taylor observe, “Commentators have noted China’s active participation and increasing representation within standards bodies, but few have acknowledged that China was able to gain this presence and influence at standards bodies because there was room for them to do so.” Indeed, understanding that technical-standards bodies are now strategic arenas for competition calls for a renewed focus on these important spaces.
In addition, we can also look to step-function or ratchet mechanisms in multilateral tech policy, which allow regularly revisiting policy decisions and cranking up ambition and commitments as research, data and experience offer greater insights into what rules and protections are needed.
Finally, the next generation of digital-tech governance should also include experiments in accountability and enforcement to ensure that actors make good on their commitments. This can build on work under way in terms of implementation, working groups and regular meetings that offer the opportunity to take stock. There are also opportunities to build on processes that seek to hold states accountable, including, for instance, the universal periodic review process and civil society efforts to use it to increase accountability for protecting and promoting human rights online. But this will also require new approaches that can leverage new forms of data and partnership. One important model is the World Benchmarking Alliance’s digital inclusion benchmark,[_] which tracks corporate performance on a series of indicators measuring how 200 of the world’s most influential technology companies work to promote digital inclusion across skills, access, trustworthy use and ethical innovation. Getting serious about accountability will also increase the credibility of these new efforts.
Digital and emerging technologies are increasingly driving economic, security, social and political change at all levels from global currents to individual lives. And as they have become more central to grand strategy and day-to-day life, questions on the development and deployment of new technologies are now bolted to the top of the agendas of international policymaking. New forms of international cooperation are setting the foundations for how the world can work together to achieve a positive digital future, but doing so will require thinking more inclusively and more anticipatorily, and will need to bring in new approaches to accountability.
What’s at stake if we don’t? The massive changes across all areas of life driven by advances in new technologies are introducing new risks and opportunities to individuals, communities and humanity at large. If we are not able to upgrade and adapt the ways we work together, and the institutions through which we cooperate, we risk a future of increased inequality, insecurity and the erosion of shared values, rights and principles that protect individuals, communities and society. As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently commented, “Global governance is failing at precisely the moment when the world should be coming together to solve global problems.” The multilateral system created more than 75 years ago is imperfect and it is far from the only actor in determining our digital future, but it plays a number of roles that will be crucial for realising a positive digital future, especially if it can crowd in, look out and commit now.
The author thanks the following experts for reviewing and providing insightful comments on an earlier draft of this paper: Christiane Ahlborn, Andrew Bennett, Max Beverton-Palmer, Kaysie Brown, Yu Ping Chan, Melanie Garson, Sheetal Kumar and Lourdes Montenegro.