On the one hand, there is a consensus that digital transitions bring great benefits socially and economically and should be distributed more widely and evenly across the globe. On the other hand, there is also a consensus that digital transitions have the potential for great harm and should be subject to agreed global constraints and regulations. To complete a triangulation, it is clear that COVID has reinforced and accelerated both propensities. Digital technology empowers those who have access, enables new areas of human activity, greatly aids communication, and brings with it, in an uncontrolled form, new threats and vulnerabilities.
This complexity is neatly illustrated in a study of just one aspect of the economic impact of the digital transition by Dennis Görlich. In his analysis of global value chains, he notes that specialized firms and their workers, often also in emerging and developing countries, have been able to participate in global production networks and benefit from investment and knowledge transfer. This opportunity for developing economies would seem to be a force for good. But it is tempered, as it is possible that automation eradicates the comparative advantage of low-wage countries. Görlich thus demonstrates that these economic interactions are complex, and outcomes are hard to predict. What might, at first sight, appear to be a force for good, turns out to have unforeseen and potentially harmful consequences. As a general trend, Countries with a better digital infrastructure and an adequately skilled workforce are likely to have a competitive advantage. The implication here, and with many of the Policy Briefs presented to the T20 Task Force 4 on Digital Transformation, is that without intervention at a global level, the potential of digitalisation to promote greater equality and access may, in effect, reinforce global inequalities and injustice. Görlich concludes, it is possible that automation eradicates the comparative advantage of low-wage countries. This finding, of enhanced inequalities, is replicated in many areas of digital activity.
This balance of greater opportunity and increasing inequality is apparent, for example, in women’s employment. In their Policy Brief, Home based Platform Work and Women’s home based participation in a Post COVID world, Dewan and Jamme argue that homebased platform work for women has the potential to reduce the gaps in male and female labour force participation, but only if there is a global policy agenda to overcome the digital divide between the sexes and promote women’s access to both training and equipment.
Children, too, are exposed to this apparently ambiguous situation. The Digital Learning for Every Child Policy Brief demonstrates that School closures have deepened pre-existing learning disparities within and among countries, due to inequities in access to technology. Here too the potential benefits of digital learning have to be balanced against the potential widening of social divisions.
Since the pandemic, it has become clear that there are potentially great benefits for public health from digitalisation, particularly in terms of international collaboration. In their Policy Brief, On Digital Health, Lessons from the European Union, Iacob and Simonelli advise that Policy makers should harness the value of health data and engage in global discussion that strives for common, cross-border, and effective digital health solutions.
When it comes to focussing on the potential harms of the digital transition there is less ambiguity and the evidence for potential misuse is sharper. Much of the potential risk, to individuals and to society in general, has to do with the unfettered accumulation and misuse of data leading firstly to intrusion and a loss of privacy and secondly, to potential destabilisation from unrestrained access to unreliable information and manipulative contacts.
At present, there is a global debate around the misuse of data by large social media platforms. These conglomerates have a widespread global presence that makes it difficult or impossible for individual nation states to impose any form of regulation. In the Policy Brief, A Global Governance Framework for Digital Technologies, Fay and Medhora propose a Digital Stability Board to develop international governance standards, monitor these, and assess vulnerabilities. Only through international action, they state, will the present incoherence of national attempts at regulation be replaced by something more effective. In a similar vein, Snower and Twomey in the influential Implementing Humanistic Digital Governance Policy Brief seek to challenge this ubiquitous commercial surveillance. They offer a detailed proposal, distinguishing between official, private, and collective data, which can then be appropriately regulated to provide a powerful bulwark against the threats to fundamental human rights in the digital realm.
While much of the contemporary discussion revolves around the misuse of data, consideration is given also to other forms of mischief and manipulation. In the Policy Brief, Sifting Truth from Fiction: Enhanced Protection from Fake News we consider a range of potential harms, particularly with regard to children, for example disturbing and misleading fake news, deceptive sales, abuse, scams, and so forth.
These Policy Briefs, presented to Task Force 4, demonstrate how pervasive the digital transformation has been, with clear indications that this process will only accelerate further, beyond the pandemic. There is general agreement that COVID, with its requirement for social distancing, has hastened the introduction of digital technologies, but that this has been unevenly distributed around the world. Given this rapid progress, the Task Force has made a series of recommendations for action by the G20. These recommendations encompass the present state of the global digital transition, seeking to promote a balance between potential benefits and likely harms in an emerging, post-COVID global order.
The Task Force thus proposes to the G20 nine areas for global action that would enhance the impact of digital transitions while helping to curb its excesses.
- Promote innovation in developing economies, better targeting the mobilisation of resources by supporting these economies to create a comprehensive, rights-based digital ecosystem. Such an ecosystem needs to be both inclusive and sustainable.
- Instigate a global discussion to harmonise rules for health data protection and develop a framework for their secondary use to promote international cooperation to counter global health threats.
- Encourage education and training that will seek to reduce existing inequalities, such as gender and cultural bias. Educational material should be accessible and designed to improve the digital skills of all children. No data should be collected from children for commercial gain.
- Examine and review the realities of platform’s work within these new technologies, and the degree of control and manipulation exerted over those working for said platforms.
- Promote greater protection against cyber risks. This should include operational collaboration of standards within financial systems to enhance cyber resilience. Social media platforms, too, should generate fact-checking standards. Systems should be developed to safeguard privacy and give individuals control over any data gathered from them.
- Set training processes for greater, global digital governance. This could include a ‘Digital Stability Board’ to set and monitor global standards and to promote an ethical dimension into the design of systems.
- Sponsor protocols around anti-competitive practices, such as self-preferencing or combining data from different sources.
- Endorse greater public-private cooperation to strengthen the digital infrastructure and aid collaboration within the digital economy.
- Consider issues around global value chains, their standards and guidelines, the adoption of new technologies, scaling up science and developing policies with regard to issues such as biodiversity.
Digital transitions have challenged to capacity of a nation state to legislate for the protection of its citizens. The pandemic, together with climate change, has decisively demonstrated that global issues are significant issues. The world needs the G20 to exert leadership and to act decisively on these areas of concern.
Paul Grainger is Honorary Senior Research Associate at the UCL Institute of Education and Co-Chair of T20 TF4 on Digital Transformation.