Countries in the Global South are keen on leveraging cyberspace for their economic development, and thus, have a considerable interest in the security and stability of the digital realm
The digital transformation has been touted as a game changer for sustainable development, a panacea for improving living standards in low- and middle-income economies and lifting up struggling governments. The rising inequalities amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and the world’s uneven recovery only underscore the importance and urgency of this matter. Digital technologies have allowed developing countries to implement communications and banking solutions, in some instances, leapfrogging technology generations that would otherwise have required significant traditional infrastructure investments. Mobile phones and biometric IDs have delivered government and banking services to hundreds of millions of India’s citizens and mobile broadband has become the sole access to internet for many African users. A 10 percent increase in mobile internet penetration in Africa is expected to result in a 2.5 percent higher gross domestic product (GDP) per capita.
Throughout humankind’s history, technological advancement contributed to economic prosperity. Measured at US $11.5 trillion globally, the digital economy accounts for 15.5 percent of the global GDP and has climbed more than twice as fast as the world’s GDP since the start of the new millennium. The US digital economy’s growth rate of 6.8 percent per annum for the 2006–2018 period outpaced the corresponding overall US GDP growth of 1.7 percent by leaps and bounds. While the digital economy’s contribution to GDP is more significant in advanced economies, estimates predict that developing countries—with significant variances across regions—will undergo rapid digital growth in the next few years. This provides an opportunity for less connected countries to close on the digital divide and advance their economy. However, to reap the benefits of digital technology, significant investments in implementation are needed, which for many developing countries are in direct competition with more urgent and immediate issues on the policy agenda.
Mobile phones and biometric IDs have delivered government and banking services to hundreds of millions of India’s citizens and mobile broadband has become the sole access to internet for many African users.
The digital economy is not equally distributed around the globe but dominated by the US and China, with other major hubs being Japan, France, Canada, India, and Taiwan. The Global South mainly consists of users of products and services owned by companies generating profits elsewhere. Facebook alone counts 790 million active users in India, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand. Global technology companies drive the digital transformation, yet fears over new colonialism, digital surveillance, and data extractions are growing amongst developing countries. Hundreds of millions of new users in the Global South have still to find out whether these platforms cater to their cultural values and intellectual aspirations.
It is pivotal for developing countries to ensure that their needs and priorities are reflected in international digital governance frameworks as these structures will determine to what extent the Global South can benefit from cyberspace and close the digital divide. The United Nations (UN) has been deliberating on the security of ICT infrastructure and stability of cyberspace for more than two decades, often dominated by competing US, Russian, and Chinese positions. But recently, a break down in the UN cyber norms process gave room to new, more inclusive modalities. This empowered digitally less developed nations to shape the rules of the road in cyberspace more actively. The marginal representation of the Global South in the closed Groups of Governmental Experts (GGE) was not only overhauled in the 2018 GGE itself, but more importantly, the novel, concurrent Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) greatly expanded participation to all interested UN member states and supported intersessional multistakeholder consultations. Initial criticism over the need to coordinate across two processes receded as each group adopted a final report by consensus.
For the practical implementation of rules, norms, and principles, regional security fora play important roles in addressing the needs of the Global South. Capacity building and confidence building measures must reflect cultural and political idiosyncrasies, which is best addressed at the regional level. The adoption of the African Union Convention on Cyber Security and Personal Data Protection in 2014, the launch of the ASEAN Cyber Capacity Programme in 2016, and the agreement to a set of confidence building measures for the Organisation of American States in 2018, are examples of implementation efforts by the Global South to shape and adapt international frameworks to strengthen their digital development.
The United Nations (UN) has been deliberating on the security of ICT infrastructure and stability of cyberspace for more than two decades, often dominated by competing US, Russian, and Chinese positions.
Competing security priorities, lack of resources, and deficient domestic legal institutions are just a few of the considerable obstacles that developing countries are facing. Growing geopolitical tensions are making the implementation of cyber rules, norms, and principles an increasingly delicate political matter. As China has rapidly advanced its Digital Silk Road initiative to expand and secure its digital footprint, the US has pushed back on these ambitions and asked its allies and partners in an explicit way to make the “right choices.” The West fears that authoritarian states will advance a tightly controlled Internet at the cost of human rights. Many countries in the Global South are caught in the middle of a power competition over the economic, security, and political leverage that digital technologies afford. Forcing those countries to choose sides may likely impede their ability to make the best decisions and shape the trajectory of future technologies for their own good.
The OEWG’s final report outlined principles to support capacity building. Activities should be sustainable, demand-driven, and tailored to specific needs but also respect human rights and support an open, secure, and peaceful cyberspace:
Growing geopolitical tensions are making the implementation of cyber rules, norms, and principles an increasingly delicate political matter.
It remains to be seen how the next iteration of the UN process with a continued emphasis on implementation will translate the priorities for the support and inclusion of the Global South’s digital transformation into action. Until then, many countries in the Global South will face uncertainty about the future of emerging and critical technologies. The quote “The future is already here—It's just not very evenly distributed” by American fiction author William Gibson strikingly emblematises their situation. The future has arrived, elsewhere in wealthy, advanced economies, but not for them. It is a global responsibility to harvest the benefits of digital technologies for sustainable development and shared prosperity. Advanced economies, in close collaboration with the Global South and guided by democratic principles, should take on leadership to ensure that our collective TechFuture is more equally distributed, and, thus, can decisively narrow global inequalities, enhance prosperity, and strengthen international security and stability.
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Dr. Andreas Kuehn is a senior fellow at ORF Americas Cyber Cooperation Initiative.Read More +