Designing a digitally-enabled roadmap for furthering Agenda 2030: Some reflections from the sidelines of the HLPF

Nandini Chami and Amrita Vasudevan

The theme for this year’s High-Level Political Forum is “Eradicating poverty and promoting prosperity in a changing world”. And surely, the HLPF cannot chart out an effective programme of action, without accounting for the shifts stemming from pervasive digitalisation and datafication of key domains of social life. At IT for Change, we analysed the HLPF draft Ministerial Declaration for the extent to which it addresses these changes, and found that it falls short. See here.

At the same time, we went beyond this critique of the existing text, to chalk out the building blocks of a robust digitally-enabled roadmap that can help us achieve sustained and improved well-being, as envisioned in the SDGs and Agenda 2030. The key ingredients of this vision are as follows:

(a) Progress towards achieving SDG 9 must include a commitment to recognising the Internet as a global public good

The Internet is a global public good/people's technology; and not the fiefdom of a few powerful platform companies. This is possible only with new Internet governance frameworks at the global and national policy levels, to nurture its social and democratic character and potential – overcoming USA's monopoly control over Critical Internet Resources and by extension, key IG policy decisions.

A concrete 'ask' to change status quo is the call for an international treaty on a global IG framework that protects, promotes and respects human rights -- building on similar ideas (such as the call for an international treaty on human rights on the Internet mooted by UN Special Rapporteurs David Kaye, Joe Cannataci and CSO coalitions such as Just Net Coalition). This new treaty must pay equal attention to the protection of civil-political rights and socio-economic rights. Or, to explain this with an example – this treaty must challenge/ strike down proposals that will end up reinforcing unequal North-South relations, such as the recent move to introduce Digital Restrictions Management into web browsers, that will result in an undemocratic extension of US copyright frameworks to the rest of the world, and a violation of right to knowledge for people of the global South.

(b) Discussions on ‘data, monitoring and accountability’ must acknowledge that 'data for development' can be harnessed only by data-supported or data-assisted decision-making, and not ‘data-driven decisionmaking’.

It is important to remember that the privileging of superficial correlation over deeper causation that comes with data-driven decision making will reinforce, or even amplify existing inequalities. Digital intelligence must be put to the service of deepening democracy and so data can assist and support decisions, not ‘drive’ it. There is a strong role for ethics and norms based on social justice and equity considerations in public policies for development.

(c) Acknowledgement of data justice as an integral part of development justice.

This means that data practices of states and corporations should not violate civic-political liberties or socio-economic rights of individuals. Big data partnerships must not bring new threats to privacy. Data collected from provisioning of welfare services may be re-purposed without consent of citizens for targeting credit or financial services. Such marketisation of development data needs strong checks and balances in the law, including to educate citizens and obtain their informed consent. Governance systems must ensure that the voices of those who are not online are not left out. Offline consultation processes are vital to inform development decision- making. Policies to ensure transparency of algorithmic decision making processes are crucial for public policy in times of data. Developing countries must build towards a national data commons and set up an institutional mechanism for a public data and digital intelligence infrastructure that will be regulated in public interest.

Another equally important component of data justice is the protection of data sovereignty of nation-states in the global South. This is a major challenge in the current context where it is becoming increasingly clear that 'he who controls data flows, controls global trade'. Developed countries are now attempting to use plurilateral trade agreements and WTO spaces to push for data rules and frameworks that will protect business interests of the global North, at the expense of the national interest of the countries of the global South. We need to challenge this reduction of 'data framework discussions’ to a trade agenda, and reclaim the space for a normative rethinking of the end-goals of data governance.