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June 11, 2020

COVID-19: Navigating the crisis with digital cooperation

By Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau, and Fabrizio Hochschild, UN Under-Secretary-General and Special Advisor

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, digital technologies have emerged as the critical enabler, facilitating continuity in our regular lives and connecting people more than ever before.

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) have allowed us to stay in touch with loved ones and have kept our daily lives going by supporting working and learning from home. They have also played an absolutely vital role in maintaining supply chains and distribution networks for essential goods like food, medicines, and health equipment. They continue to serve as a vital conduit for the dissemination of public health information, and a platform for collaboration in developing coordinated policy directives at national and regional levels. Crucially, ICTs are also at the heart of emerging “track, test, and treat” platforms that are widely recognized as critical weapons in the fight against COVID-19 and other infectious diseases.

But vital as they have been to the world’s efforts to cope with the pandemic, digital technologies also have a darker side. Malicious actors have seized on the global health emergency to mount cyberattacks. Cybercrime, fraud and illicit content have also escalated sharply. And potentially harmful online misinformation and disinformation has spread even faster than the virus itself. The rapid harnessing of technology by governments to combat the spread of COVID-19 around the world has also raised important issues around data privacy and security.

And the enormous advantages of being connected have laid bare widening social fault-lines, whereby the half of humanity lacking access to digital devices, platforms and high-speed connectivity have been disproportionately disadvantaged, exacerbating existing social inequalities.

The COVID-19 crisis has served as a timely ‘digital stress test’ for governments worldwide, underscoring the vital role the Internet now plays in every country’s economic prosperity and social inclusion.

Our belief in the importance of global dialogue in anticipating and responding to the many issues associated with the COVID emergency thus prompted us to launch our recent webinar series: “Digital Cooperation During COVID19 and Beyond.” This series of five high-level panel discussions focused on examining how we might promote wider access to secure safe, stable, affordable and inclusive connectivity, both during and after the crisis.

Sharing best practice on key issues

Over the past five weeks, we’ve discussed best practices with an impressive array of panellists – from senior government figures to industry leaders and civil society champions. Our aim was to identify short and mid-term measures to help address the difficulties highlighted by the pandemic ahead of the launch of the UN Secretary-General’s much-anticipated “Roadmap for Digital Cooperation”.

To recap, our webinar topics included:

  • Connectivity – Situation Assessment: What We Know, What We Still Need to Know (Read more)
  • Connectivity – Best Practices: COVID-19 Initiatives, What Works, What Doesn’t (Read more)
  • The ‘Infodemic’ – Misinformation and Disinformation During COVID-19 (Read more)
  • Online Safety and Security During COVID-19 (Read more)
  • Public Health, Digital Responses and Human Rights (Read more)
A wake-up call to accelerate global connectivity

An estimated 3.6 billion people remain without access to the internet – and even among those currently counted as being ‘connected’, a large number still lack access to devices, affordable packages and speed of service that would make this connectivity meaningful.

In one sense, the COVID-19 crisis has served as a timely ‘digital stress test’ for governments worldwide, underscoring the vital role the Internet now plays in every country’s economic prosperity and social inclusion.

UNICEF estimates that 1.5 billion children around the world have found themselves out of school, as lockdowns sent populations indoors – often for many long weeks. Better-off children in the world’s wealthier nations were lucky enough to be able to quickly transition to online classes. But the remainder simply saw their schooling come to an abrupt halt – with potential long-term implications for their future.

Getting every single young person online must now become one of our most urgent global priorities; if not, we risk greatly exacerbating global inequalities, with today’s privileged ‘digital natives’ maturing into tomorrow’s ‘digital aristocrats’ and enjoying huge advantages over peers who do not benefit from easily available and affordable digital access.

One key challenge, therefore, will be to identify innovative approaches to network investment that will rapidly push access out to underserved communities, as well as meeting the accelerating demand for frontier technologies – made all the more urgent in the context of COVID-19.

Ensuring reliable and trustworthy information

During the COVID-19 pandemic, one pressing question repeatedly emerged: how can we contain the spread of disinformation while upholding the principle of freedom of speech?

Certainly, disinformation is not new. But the scale, speed, and low cost of dissemination that is made possible by digital platforms have greatly amplified both its volume, and its potential impact. Crisis situations create fertile ground for the perpetration of rumours, fake news and deliberate falsehoods. Unchecked, ‘misinfodemics’ can have lethal consequences.

During our webinar series, expert speaker Ambassador Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger, President of the Human Rights Council, noted that some people trust rumours from people they know more than they trust credible scientific information from someone they don’t know. This very human instinct is easily exploited by those seeking to spread fear and panic.

The current crisis is an opportunity to learn how to create a technology equivalent of social distancing – let’s call it ‘digital distancing’ – to stop viral misinformation in its tracks.

Countering vulnerability means better user education, better moderation of content on platforms, and better cross-sectoral, multistakeholder cooperation around principles and guidelines. ‘Information inoculation’ built around these three key elements can help protect us all from the darker side of digital content.

Protecting the most vulnerable

One alarming consequence of the current health emergency has been a concomitant rise in online crime. Cybercriminals and other malign actors have been using the COVID-19 crisis to launch social engineering attacks: individuals are facing online threats and harm from increased fraud, phishing, and extortion, while a surge in ransomware attacks have compromised mission critical systems, such as governments, companies, media facilities, and even the United Nations, including the World Health Organization (WHO).

While several concrete actions, such as increased awareness campaigns by national Computer Emergency Response Teams (CERTs), have been implemented in response to the growing tide of cyber risks surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, protecting vulnerable populations and critical infrastructure from cyber threats calls for proactive multi-stakeholder action, greater capacity building to reduce vulnerabilities in underserved areas, and cross border collaboration.

It is only through coordinated efforts and actions that we will succeed in curtailing cybercrime and online abuse. Each and every stakeholder, from governments and the private sector to civil society groups, has an important role to play in tackling this serious issue, and much more needs to be done. Efforts to find new ways to promote cooperation between different stakeholder groups need to be stepped up.

Our special guest for webinar #4 on Online Safety & Security, Her Majesty Queen Silvia of Sweden, stressed our particular responsibility to keep safe the millions of children now connected – many of whom may be going online for the first time. Urging participants to do everything in their power to keep children safe online, she noted: “The virus knows no borders. And online perpetrators respect no borders. Therefore, we need to work together across borders. Making sure that the recommendations that have been developed are turned into concrete action is one very good way to start.”

Benchmarking our future digital human rights

The theme of our final webinar, which focused on human rights aspects of any strategies we formulate to respond to the many digital challenges the COVID crisis has thrown up, was chosen very deliberately. Crises spark panic, and in that panic it is all too easy to lose sight of the principles and frameworks that previous generations have fought so hard to have recognized.

So as we move to devise and implement effective responses to prevent the spread of the virus and COVID-linked disinformation and cybercriminality, our expert panellists emphasized the need to ensure that digital responses do not impact on citizens’ fundamental rights and freedoms.

That means that the use of digital technologies to promote public health must remain compliant with the rule of law; privacy and data protection are paramount. In the words of H.E. Kyung-Wha Kang, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea, speaking about her country’s own response: “The use of our advanced digital tools has certainly been critical, but they alone would not have won the trust of the public. In the end, technology is only as good or bad as the use that it is put to. We have put digital tools to good use in the service of the people in fighting COVID-19, and that’s how trust has been won.”

In the end, it all comes back to the all-important focus on digital cooperation. Like COVID-19, technologies do not recognize borders. No country will be safe until all countries are safe; whether we are speaking of the virus itself, or of the risk of digital harm. In today’s hyperconnected, global world, nothing can happen without concerted global coordination and collaboration around multilateral institutions to develop cross-border approaches that match the complexity of the issues we face. As Bernardo Mariano, Director of Digital Health and Innovation at the UN World Health Organization, wisely remarked: responding to this crisis continues to require from all of us, the best of us.

We now look forward to the launch of the United Nations Secretary-General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation on 11 June, which will touch on many of the above themes while putting forward concrete actions to connect, respect and protect the online world.

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COVID-19: Navigating the crisis with digital cooperation

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