We have a duty to build a better post-pandemic digital world

If we do not act now, digital divides can become the new face of inequality after the coronavirus pandemic.

A woman browses the Internet at a cyber cafe in Putrajaya
A woman browses the Internet at a cyber cafe in Putrajaya, Malaysia on June 16, 2011 [Reuters/Bazuki Muhammad]

In just 25 years since its invention, almost four billion people now use the internet, vastly outpacing the speed at which the world adopted any earlier technology. For comparison, 25 years after the first commercial automobile was produced, less than 1 percent of United States citizens had one. It took 140 years from when Michael Faraday invented the first electric generator for electricity to reach half the world.

Inventions that at first were luxuries become basic needs as societies and economies build up dependencies around them. During the global pandemic, many of us have become almost wholly dependent on digital technologies for social interaction, remote work and learning, as well as for access to healthcare, banking, and other essential services.

For most of us the pandemic, thanks to digital technology, has been hard but manageable. Without access to the internet the mass confinement would have been catastrophic for just about all of us.

Now consider this: Half the world’s population – including many in the worse COVID-19 hotspots – do not have access to the internet. More than 80 percent of people in the poorest countries remain disconnected from the online world, while women, minorities, and people with disabilities in all parts of the world are persistently excluded.

The lack of affordable internet, digital literacy and relevant content exacerbates and magnifies pre-existing socioeconomic disparities and cements exclusion: Digital divides threaten to become the new face of inequality.  

The difficulties of overcoming the digital divide are compounded by the threat of digital fragmentation as a result of a resurgence of geopolitical rivalry and friction, technological competition, and polarisation. An inclusive, healthy, fair and safe digital future needs strengthened international solidarity – not distrust, conflict and isolation.

Moreover, while digital tools provide tremendous social and economic opportunities, new means to defend human rights, facilitate peace-making and boost sustainable development, in the wrong hands and in an unconducive global environment, they can also enable great harm, discrimination, and conflict. 

The United Nations is no stranger to facilitating governance of new technologies. Founded 75 years ago at the outset of the nuclear era, the very first resolution of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) successfully sought to safeguard the public from nuclear weapons and to harness peaceful atomic energy. Digital and frontier technologies, however, require a very different approach to policy and norm-setting.

The internet knows no borders, and the transformation which digital technologies bring is being driven less by governments than the private sector. Our efforts must be agile, flexible, decentralised and multi-stakeholder. Given the pace of change, no one government, company or organisation can tackle these issues alone.

This month, the UN Secretary-General released a Roadmap for Digital Cooperation. It charts a way forward for universal, affordable, and meaningful access to the internet by 2030; for human rights to be respected online; and for people to be protected from online harms and digital security threats. It is a call for governments, the private sector, civil society, the technical community, and the global public to collectively address the most pressing issues of the digital age.

As Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, said last week at the launch of the Roadmap, let us envision a “race to the top”, in which governments and the tech sector work together to connect the unconnected, respect privacy, fight misinformation, and build inclusive technologies. 

Without digital cooperation, what could be a source of boosting development and furthering the human dignity of all, could leave many people less secure, less safe and more excluded. 

Today we stand at an inflexion point. Future generations will judge whether we seize the opportunities of this unprecedented moment. As we emerge from the current crisis, there needs to be a global, collective, responsibility to build back better, on a safer and more equitable technological foundation. The time to act is now.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.