In my view: The promises, pitfalls and potential of global technology governance

Nanjira Sambuli
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Digital technologies, given their rapid rate of diffusion through globalisation, have become “glocal” in nature. They are becoming a mainstay of society, with their adoption further accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The policies and governance approaches shaping them make the forward march to (more) digitalisation a concern for developed and developing countries alike.

This so-called glocal aspect complicates the question of what comprises digital transformation as well as the role of the international community in delivering on the governance of these technologies. Digital divides, for instance, are a major concern. They go beyond the divide between the connected and unconnected, they also manifest among the connected in both developed and developing nations. Digital divides take on access, skills, language, and gendered dimensions, to name a few. Digital transformation agendas must consider this diversity to ensure that advances in digitalisation do not widen existing inequalities and inadvertently create new ones.

Similarly, tech governance is not only about establishing guardrails for emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence; it also addresses socio-economic, cultural and political complexities that predate, and are exacerbated by, digitalisation. Market solutions alone, however promising and exciting, will not solve these intractable and interconnected challenges. For instance, driving down costs of Internet access – from infrastructure to connecting devices – will not per se directly result in more people contributing to and benefiting from digitalisation. The demand-side drivers for adoption are laden with inequalities. To illustrate, adverse socio-cultural norms like gendered disparities in access to education and income opportunities are mirrored in who gains access and who can meaningfully use and even create digital technologies. Digital governance at the global and local levels must therefore advance coherent, sustainable policies and requisite investments in eliminating systemic barriers – not merely fixate on the technologies of the day.

The discourse around global governance must better accommodate the real digital transformation challenges of developing countries – they are, after all, home to the majority of the digitally unconnected and thus offer the greatest potential for growth and even untapped innovation for our digital futures.   

The discourse around global governance must better accommodate the real digital transformation challenges of developing countries – they are, after all, home to the majority of the digitally unconnected and thus offer the greatest potential for growth and even untapped innovation for our digital futures. The policy and governance options put forth by the international community require a wider cross-sectoral and interdisciplinary frame to ensure simultaneous contextual, progressive and sustainable digitalisation. All too often, digital development efforts are informed by a limited range of views, making it more difficult to realise the desired outcomes. At the same time, fascination with digital innovation frequently relegates governance considerations and undermines their critical role in driving appropriate digitalisation trajectories. This “innovation captivation” has given rise to technology solutionism – the assumption that development challenges can be solved through (more) technology – and leapfrogging, leading to enormous mistakes that risk widening inequalities. A sound example is investing in digital infrastructure without factoring in whether a developing country has the reliable and sustainable energy sources needed for the resulting connectivity. Similarly, digital education is not just a matter of flashy gadgets to power learning, but of sustained investment in well-trained teachers and a vast range of other context-specific enabling factors to ensure that the deployed digital tools can deliver on the desired outcomes. Leapfrogging may work in the context of bypassing legacy telecommunications infrastructure. But it can be an inappropriate and acontextual approach to investing in social dimensions such as health and access to education, and even in technical dimensions such as access to reliable and sustainable energy sources to power connectivity. The international community must rid itself of this myopia.

There have been growing calls within the international community for global technology governance and co-operation to embody inclusive multilateralism and multistakeholderism. This rhetoric reflects the significant role of all stakeholders – whether from governments, inter-governmental organisations, civil society, the private sector, academia or technical communities – in shaping legitimate governance outcomes. In practice, however, the mechanisms and underlying assumptions about how to effectively implement the twin governance approaches do not get sufficient attention. Before taking a decision, the international community must urgently consult developing nations, starting with the governments, as there are (unaddressed) concerns about their readiness to adopt the multistakeholder model, which may be unfamiliar (compared to the more established multilateralism) and frequently seen as both resource- and capacity-intensive and falling short in terms of producing enforceable actions. Additionally, the multistakeholder approach to global tech governance typically features, by default, well-resourced stakeholders across sectors. This unintentionally raises the costs of engagement for small and developing nations, local civil society, and smaller private sector players. If these issues are not addressed, they could undermine the principal of inclusion sought in international digital co-operation.

Much work lies ahead to advance digital development. Priority should be given to the intricacies of governance as the international community frames and shapes its tasks. Avoiding short-term, siloed and insufficiently informed action agendas is critical to ensuring that “glocal” technologies are governed in a way that maximises the benefits and minimises the harms of digitalisation.

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