Who is going to regulate the global digital world? Interview with Fabrizio Hochschild

Alexandra Mousavizadeh
10 min readJun 18, 2020

Can the UN play a key role? Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on the Commemoration of the United Nations 75th Anniversary, Fabrizio Hochschild believes so. Here he unveils the details of the recently published ‘UN Roadmap for digital cooperation: implementation of the recommendations of the independent High-level Panel on #DigitalCooperation’ and discusses its implications for artificial intelligence, climate change, human rights and more

‘The Roadmap for Digital Cooperation’ is a newly released report from the UN. Drawn up by stakeholders from across the planet it sets out both a vision and a pathway for global digital cooperation. Its core aim is to inspire public and private sectors, as well as civic society, to deliver universal digital connectivity with internet access for all.

Yet along the journey to global digital inclusivity there remains a huge amount to be discussed and agreed upon.

The roadmap addresses some of these considering ethical issues, such as how do countries and organisations regulate technologies like artificial intelligence and blockchain?

It addresses environmental ones like how can the surge in electricity be required to deliver global digital access, not impact too negatively on the climate crisis? And lastly it looks at how technology has changed our perspective of human rights. How should organisations and countries strike a balance between individual freedom and the requirements of states, especially given the recent discussions about the tracking that has been a pivotal tool in stemming the Covid19 pandemic?

Fabrizio Hochschild played a key role in the development of the roadmap. It will be his office that plays a huge part in convincing governments , enterprises and influencers to work together to ensure its success.

Fabrizio Hochschild has previously served as Deputy to the UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser for the Summit on Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants and as a graduate of the University of Oxford, he has published studies and articles on global leadership, the protection of citizens and transnational justice.

Central to the report is the potential regulation and governance of the implementation of new technologies. And the technology that is most likely to shape the coming decades is artificial intelligence. The countries that most successfully deploy it are likely to improve productivity, increase GDP and exert greater influence over global affairs.

In order to monitor the progress of artificial intelligence in December Tortoise launched the Global AI Index. It is the first index to benchmark nations on their level of investment, innovation and implementation of artificial intelligence; measuring factors related to education, funding, research, governance and talent.

The infrastructure needed for the development and implementation of artificial intelligence is closely linked to national levels of connectivity, digital transformations and access to computing.

As the development of artificial intelligence is showing that international cooperation on ethical standards for technology is a significant challenge we must understand what the UN can do to place guard rails around these new and powerful technologies.

Here Fabrizio Hochschild describes some of the core elements of the roadmap as well as answering some of the key questions that we believe it doesn’t fully address.

1 The roadmap says “Operations related to information and communications technologies (ICT) are expected to represent up to 20 percent of global electricity demand.” Is this not too high a price to pay given the current climate crisis and indeed the UN’s recommendations on carbon reduction? How can the UN and the world’s nations balance this out?

There is an environmental cost to connectivity, especially in terms of data storage and even more so when you look at technologies like blockchain that rely on very high levels of connectivity. However, there are also significant savings to be made through AI applications. For example, internet-enabled smart energy grids are significantly more efficient than traditional grids, self-driving cars are optimally fuel efficient, and resource preservation systems cut waste at every level of the supply chain. If we continue to innovate with digital technologies, we will see increasingly efficient and sustainable systems. Furthermore, we live in a digital era — there is no going back from our digital economy. We should promote innovation grounded in sustainability, awareness around the environmental cost of digital technologies, and policies that promote the use of sustainable energy over fossil fuels.

2 The roadmap highlights universal connectivity, pointing out that only 53.6 percent of the world’s population now use the Internet, leaving an estimated 3.6 billion without access. The least developed countries are the least connected, at only 19 per cent of their populations. Universal connectivity is a serious issue, how is the UN proposing to work with governments to create stable broadband infrastructures in developing countries?

It’s not only governments that need to play a role in ensuring universal connectivity — it requires the private sector and civil society too, and I’m encouraged by how much interest there is from diverse stakeholders in this regard. What is lacking is better cooperation, better coordination and working to scale. To begin with, we need to agree on connectivity baselines — what is the minimum each citizen requires to have a meaningful connection? Without that we have no metrics. We also need to consider cost — a gigabyte of data should not cost more than two per cent of a person’s average monthly income. Then there is the question of infrastructure costs. Connecting all of Africa by 2030 is expected to cost around 100 billion USD. This is not something governments can handle alone. If we are to achieve it as the Roadmap sets out by 2030, we need massively scaled up and better coordinated efforts of all actors. ITU and UNICEF are undertaking a joint project, called GIGA, to connect every school in the world to the internet, primarily using solar energy. This kind of partnership should inspire others.

3 The roadmap says “In the present crisis, connectivity needs to be prioritized as a foundation to ensure the continuation of critical services, enable digital literacy and promote social inclusion.” In what ways has the Covid-19 crisis impacted thought on global digital transformation and the creation of the digital roadmap? Are there elements that wouldn’t have been incorporated into the report six months ago?

The COVID crisis effectively accelerated the digital transformation and magnified both the benefits and challenges associated with it, making the Roadmap more urgent than it was six months ago. COVID-19 has demonstrated how important digital cooperation and multilateralism are. No one government, company, or community, can tackle COVID-19 alone. The same goes for managing some of the challenges of the digital era. Digital technologies reach beyond national borders and the challenges can not be solved by any one state alone. As important as national policies and legislation are, to maximise digital benefits and curtail digital harms we also need strengthened international cooperation.

4 The roadmap references “There will be 230 million “digital jobs” in sub-Saharan Africa by 2030 that could potentially generate nearly $120 billion in revenue, but this would require some 650 million training opportunities by 2030.” If we were to achieve this, what kind of impact does the UN think this digital transformation would have on the GDPs of African countries?

Digital transformation can create enormous opportunities for all regions of the world. For sub-Saharan Africa, it can serve as an opportunity to boost economic growth, and to develop the health, agriculture, education and tourism sectors — this is something the African Union recognised in its 2063 Agenda. In terms of GDP, we can see that African companies which are digitized have a competitive advantage. That said, parts of Africa lag behind on digital transformation dimensions, including digital IDs, online banking, and remote working. Without the necessary digital infrastructure and ensuring affordable access, sub-Saharan Africa could be left behind and current divides and inequalities will grow.

5 “It is critical that legislation and safeguards are in place to protect people from unlawful or unnecessary surveillance, including any arbitrary surveillance which may be carried out by State actors in cyberspace, as well as the physical world.” How do you strike a balance between individual freedom and the requirements of states in the light of Covid19? And what role should the UN play?

We have seen during the recent crisis that a balance is attainable, and those countries which already had experience in deploying tracing systems at the onset of the COVID pandemic have proved this over the past few months. The Republic of Korea, for example, through widespread testing and tracing, managed to allow most of its citizens to continue living their lives free of a lockdown. Tracing was used to enhance the right to freedom of movement for the majority. What we have learnt, is that the key to achieving such a balance is public trust in the authorities, which in turn requires transparency. There are a number of actions that can be taken to encourage trust by those collecting the data, whether it be a government or a company. Data collection should be anonymised and decentralised, to avoid stigmatization of carriers, and the risks carried by a data breach. Only data relevant to the exercise need be collected, and it should be destroyed after a certain time. Tracing should be limited to the duration of the public health emergency. These kinds of steps, which are in essence ‘privacy by design’ principles, are not only relevant to pandemics, but should be employed in the development of all data-related technologies. The UN plays a role in advocating for such principles, and convening stakeholders in order for them to debate and agree on such principles, notably in the Human Rights Council. It can also provide digital capacity building in this area to those seeking to learn from best practices of others.

6 Why are digital issues low on inter-governmental agendas?

Governance moves far more slowly than the development of digital technologies. Diplomacy in particular can tend to be slow and hard at a time of resurgent global divisions. The digital era however is bringing the worlds of diplomacy and tech together. Microsoft appointed representatives to the UN and the EU last year. Denmark and a growing number of other countries have Tech Ambassadors… The digital era demands greater cooperation across traditionally siloed sectors. While multilateral engagement remains central to international cooperation, entities that do not adopt a multi-stakeholder approach to digital issues will find themselves left behind.

7 How far should the UN work with multinational tech platforms to counter online harassment and violence. Can global ethics standards ever be agreed and enforced?

Human rights obligations apply online as they apply offline. The challenge is interpreting exactly how they apply in the digital domain and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Human Rights Council are spearheading important work in that regard. We are already working with multinational tech platforms on curtailing violence and harassment online, in particular from a human rights perspective. This is perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of social media. Protection from harm online — which often leads to harm offline — has to be calibrated with the right to freedom of speech. Content moderation is both necessary and complex and approaches vary greatly from country to country. Cooperation in this area is increasing between Governments, tech companies and civil society as well as across geographic borders. Some Member States are seeking to approach this at the government or inter-governmental level. Elsewhere, companies are looking to establish their own internal governance mechanisms. It is highly unlikely — nor arguably desirable — that we will have any enforceable global digital standards any time soon, but that doesn’t detract from the importance of multi-stakeholder engagement on this front and the desirability of better coordinating approaches across the world.

8 Is it concerning to the UN that so much of the development of AI is siloed? Some countries are working on their own projects and are reluctant to share best practice. Even on a global level there are currently over 160 organizational, national and international sets of AI ethics and governance principles worldwide. Is it just about the UN delivering a forum that brings these together? What more should the UN be doing?

Access and development asymmetries exist globally for all technologies, and AI is no exception. While recognizing that AI is a competitive technology, we also see its transformative potential and believe we must try and maximise the benefits for all. There are many ways to share best practices without compromising intellectual property concerns and supporting those ways of sharing information should be globally encouraged. In line with that, the UN certainly recognizes the proliferation of excellent work on AI, including on AI ethics and governance principles, and is seeking to amplify this work globally. The call to create a global advisory body on AI responds directly to that, we believe that everyone will benefit from convening such a platform for better exchange of best practices. There are many AI-related projects undertaken by other UN entities and our goal is to help them be better coordinated and maximise opportunities for synergies with each other and between member states, companies, universities, and civil society organizations.

9 I didn’t see much in the roadmap about addressing mental health issues. Are there ways in which technology can empower governments to help improve the mental health of its citizens?

Mental health issues can affect us all either personally or vicariously. When I suffered PTSD after serving in then Yugoslavia, there were few resources available to me. I think the internet can vastly improve this, because people are able to share their experiences with others and see their struggles reflected in others. Today you can speak to your therapist on Zoom and find free apps for mindfulness and meditation, which was unimaginable a few years ago. There is also the obvious downside to technology, that too much screen-time can lead to a sense of isolation and anxiety. Many people are suffering from that during the COVID crisis. But on the whole I think the spread of digital technology will continue to chip away at the stigma that used to be so common, and in some places still is, around mental illness. That gives me hope.

10 You have served the UN in many countries that are struggling with poverty and under-development. What do you think the digital roadmap offers those communities?

The Roadmap is relevant to the entire world. But it is especially relevant to those who are not yet adequately integrated into the benefits of the digital world and who have not been able to participate adequately in the debate and decision making around digital technologies. The digitisation of the world could serve as a great motor for promoting sustainable development, but it could also exacerbate divides. The Secretary-General has laid out a path for a brighter, fairer, more prosperous digital future for all, but to make it a reality requires the engagement of all stakeholders, from governments to the general public. While I’m optimistic, I’m also aware of the urgency we face in ensuring we don’t miss this opportunity. In that respect, I hope that this report will serve to galvanize the international community.



Alexandra Mousavizadeh

Hi I am Alexandra, a partner at Tortoise Media where I work in the Intelligence group https://www.tortoisemedia.com/intelligence/