We are well past the point of speculating about the consequences of unchecked use of technologies like automated decision-making systems, biometrics, facial recognition or blockchain on our lives and societies. Loss of privacy and autonomy, digital exclusion and the widespread erosion of trust in democratic institutions are only some of the unintended consequences with social repercussions that are becoming more apparent every day.
Yet every time these questions and conversations about our collective digital future come up, a chorus of voices demand better regulation sooner. While better regulation is an essential part of global technological governance, several key ingredients must be in place before we can get there.
First, we need to come up with new roles, institutions and forms of collaboration. Figuring out what that new ecosystem looks like and how it could work will provide the infrastructure we need to create better policies and regulations. It seems clear that regulators and their policymaker counterparts have a role in filling the gap between the principles and practice of responsible technology governance – but they can’t do it alone.
Digital cooperation underpinned by a digital commons architecture offers a promising way forward. Defined by the United Nations as “ways of working to address the social, ethical, legal and economic impact of digital technologies in order to maximize their benefits and minimize their harm”, digital cooperation can support the advancement of Agenda 2030 and the UN Sustainable Development Goals while ensuring a safe, connected and inclusive digital future for all.
This sounds nice on paper, but what does digital cooperation look like in practice? After a deep exploration of what is possible in terms of funding models, modes of collaboration, regulatory environments and metrics, a digital commons architecture is not only among the most exciting of those possibilities, but also the most feasible.
One reason is because we already have successful examples of transnational cross-sectoral approaches to governing assets that belong to all: think the Law of the Sea, which imposes a duty to protect marine resources for future generations. Or in the digital world, common protocols like HTTPS that make the internet work come to mind.
So, what happens when we apply a digital commons approach to the elusive “how” of global technology governance?
You get something that looks a little like Digital Future Society, a transnational programme led by the Spanish Government and Mobile World Capital Barcelona with the mandate to convene experts from all over the world to share experiences and insights that enable us to build common assets. Digital Future Society provides the much-needed space to undertake iterative, multilateral learning on digital governance through practice.
Our commons approach to digital cooperation persistently seeks to test efficacy and develop the necessary procedures and solutions in real-world environments together with partners such as the Inter-American Development Bank, GSMA, and the World Economic Forum. One example of this type of experimental, cross-sectoral common asset might be the creation of a sandbox that ensures data is free from bias before it can be used to train algorithms. Other projects seek to advance a global metric for digital inclusion, build a global repository of digital business models that promote privacy and transparency, and map emerging govtech ecosystems around the world.
The apparatus of the government itself is a sort of commons, and regulation is the means by which we maintain the commons. But we need to establish strong collaborative mechanisms, institutions and partners with clearly defined roles to ensure that regulatory maintenance can be carried out in the first place. If “a better collective digital future for all” is the “what”, I very much look forward to discussing the potential of a digital commons approach as the “how” of regulating a safe, connected and inclusive future at ITU Telecom World 2019. See you this September in Budapest!