Can the UN Roadmap on Digital Cooperation Improve our Digital Future?

12 June

Marjorie Buchser

Marjorie Buchser

Executive Director, Digital Society Initiative

Ruma Mandal

Ruma Mandal

Director, International Law Programme

The new proposals are timely with the world at a critical inflection point for technology governance, as responses to the ongoing pandemic have fast-forwarded digitalization across all sectors.


Attendees photograph the Massive Curve of Nature display of 250 curved screens at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, USA. Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images.

Attendees photograph the Massive Curve of Nature display of 250 curved screens at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, USA. Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images.

Within the space of just a few months, the worldwide health crisis has accentuated gaps in connectivity and underscored the deep fragmentation of responses and approaches to technology deployment and adoption. And numerous processes and entities have already emerged raising concerns around this fragmentation, as well as effectiveness and inclusivity.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and World Economic Forum (WEF) have both set up new units to facilitate governance efforts while, in response to intensifying public pressure, ‘big tech’ initiated a series of multi-stakeholder alliances such as the Partnership on AI, the Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace and the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism.

But none of these carry the legitimacy that comes – even in difficult times for multilateralism – from the global umbrella of the United Nations (UN). However, despite significant contributions by UN actors on human rights online, the creation of the multi-stakeholder Internet Governance Forum, working groups on cyber security norms and other UN-driven initiatives, the UN itself has struggled to match the rapid advances in technology capabilities and adoption.

Perhaps this is inevitable, given the sheer scale and complexity of the challenge combined with institutional and capacity challenges the organization faces, as well as ongoing geopolitical tensions.

Welcome change of pace and ambition

But despite such challenges, the unveiling of its Roadmap for Digital Cooperation by the UN secretary-general shows a welcome change in pace and ambition, responding to recommendations by a High Level Panel on Digital Cooperation on the future of global technology governance.

The roadmap lays out a series of concrete steps and potential mechanisms for global digital cooperation, including the establishment of several new coalitions and alliances. And it also clearly identifies some of the critical gaps in the way global technology governance is developed, including a lack of common metrics and definitions.

As the document notes, there are currently no ‘baselines on the fundamental level of digital connectivity that individuals need to access the online space’. Referencing the SDGs, the roadmap promises to support efforts to track and monitor progress, including universal targets and metrics on digital connectivity, as well as a definition of “affordability” for internet pricing. It also calls for support towards the development of annual ‘national scorecards’ on digital inclusion.

The roadmap also sees the UN re-assert its normative power, because it recognizes the fundamental complexity of the digital landscape, and the consequent importance of creating a ‘common language’ for multiple stakeholders, including under-represented actors such as smaller and/or developing countries, civil society and non-for-profit organizations.

It advocates for a common affirmative model that promotes digital public goods such as open source software, open data and open standards, it seeks to align visions for digital security, and it firmly underscores the application of international human rights law in the digital space.

In persistently articulating the political, civic and economic benefits associated with a more open digital sphere, the roadmap highlights the perils of abusive technology-driven surveillance, internet shutdowns and online harassment, emphasizing the responsibilities of both governments and technology companies.

Its warning to digital platforms on privacy issues echoes both public concerns and the EU’s emerging stance that ‘the current financing model for social media platforms effectively encourages the collection of personal data for commercial purposes, so that content and advertising can be more effectively tailored to individuals’ consumption patterns. Changes to this model will need to be considered in order to reverse the trend’.

While the secretary-general aims to appoint a technology envoy and set up a number of new UN-led multi-stakeholder initiatives – including on both AI and digital inclusion – the ambition of the UN playing a centralizing and coherence-building role in global technology governance has to contend with the reality of profoundly differing approaches between democratic and authoritarian governments.

This is evident in the roadmap’s approach to global architecture for digital governance, in that it does not expand on the rather broad suggestions made by the High Level Panel. The panel offered three alternative models: a strengthened and enhanced ‘Internet Governance Forum Plus’, a distributed co-governance architecture that ‘decouples the design of digital norms from their implementation and enforcement’, and a digital commons architecture that would treat the digital world as a global commons issue requiring joint stewardship.

The roadmap seems to park this core question by simply noting that discussions among relevant stakeholders are still ongoing. However the secretary-general does commit to making the Internet Governance Forum more responsive and outcome-oriented, and the report indicates some appetite for piloting co-governance models at either national or regional level.

Most notably, the roadmap is vocal on one of the fundamental shortcomings of today’s global technology governance – the lack of inclusivity. Developing countries are largely absent from or not well-represented in international digital governance forums and, as highlighted in Chatham House’s ongoing Inclusive Governance Initiative conversations, the ability of civil society actors to engage in the venues open to them is severely hampered by cost, expertise and networks.

The fact that a number of the doadmap ‘champions’ and ‘key constituents’ are under-represented actors such as smaller and developing countries and NGOS, gives hope for a more inclusive and diverse approach in the future. But delivering on capacity-building will be key and so the roadmap’s emphasis on this is welcome.

In a world in flux, which is increasingly digitalized and fragmented, the Roadmap for Digital Cooperation is one of the most ambitious and far-reaching attempts so far to provide a universal affirmative vision of the digital realm – one that is open, safe and rooted in human agency and human rights. But realising that vision requires a delicate marrying of power and representation.

Source: International Law and Governance

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Seeking Accountability for UK Complicity in Torture

12 June

Ben Horton

Ben Horton

Communications Manager, Communications and Publishing

Professor Ruth Blakeley

University of Sheffield, The Rendition Project

Dr Sam Raphael

University of Westminster; The Rendition Project

Despite a series of inquiries since 2010, has enough been done to prevent future British involvement in the torture of detainees?

In the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, the United Kingdom’s intelligence services were in several instances complicit in the use of torture by the CIA and other foreign agencies. Despite a series of inquiries since 2010, and some reforms of the system, questions remain about whether enough has been done to prevent future British involvement in the torture of detainees. Ben Horton speaks to Ruth Blakeley and Sam Raphael from The Rendition Project to find out more about what they describe as a ‘machinery of denial’ at the heart of the British state.  

Could you explain what you mean by complicity in torture? 

Ruth Blakeley: The first thing to acknowledge is that torture happened. It is well documented that CIA officials, third parties hired by the CIA and collaborating intelligence agencies from a range of other states all engaged in extreme forms of torture. This included waterboarding, rectal force-feeding, sleep deprivation and the confinement of people in coffin-shaped boxes for days on end. All of this is now a matter of public record. Indeed, some of the architects of the programmes admit that they did these things but claim their actions were justified by operational necessity.  

In terms of UK complicity, we do not allege that UK agents conducted these acts. However, in 2018 a report from the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament (ISC) found that UK intelligence agents were aware that torture had taken place, either because it was reported to them or because the CIA indicated that it happened. In some cases, UK operatives observed some of the abuse or witnessed the aftermath. Under international law, these operatives would have had a responsibility to report this up the chain of command and try to stop it. There are numerous examples where they could have intervened, but little evidence that they did so.  

Another way in which UK agents were complicit was that they shared intelligence on particular prisoners with the CIA, knowing that those prisoners were at risk of, or indeed experiencing, torture. There are also allegations that the UK facilitated kidnap operations, for instance by allowing the CIA aircraft used to transport detainees to refuel on British territory. Specifically, they were known to have allowed some of those aircraft to transition through the British Overseas Territory of Diego Garcia, where there is a US military base. So, there was certainly complicity at many levels, the most serious being operatives having extensive knowledge of, or even witnessing, torture when it happened.  

Have we seen a shift in the approach of British intelligence services in recent years? 

Sam Raphael: Since 2010 there has been a reckoning of sorts. The publishing of the government’s ‘Consolidated Guidance’ in 2011, the Gibson inquiry in 2013, the ISC inquiry in 2018 and, most recently, the publication of ‘The Principles’ in 2019 all mark an evolution in the oversight framework for intelligence sharing and involvement in counterterrorism operations which may lead to abuse.  

That said, to some extent this new framework is illusory. Many of the guidelines remain classified and those that we have managed to access provide an illusion of oversight and constraint, while being rhetorically structured to preserve a space for very illiberal practices to continue. It seems very unclear to us what provisions exist to monitor, oversee and shape the ways in which that language is being interpreted. 

In what ways is a British intelligence official today constrained in their ability to share information with foreign partners who may then engage in torture? 

Sam Raphael: When you look at the existing guidance to officials with that question in mind, the illusion of accountability becomes apparent. Even if an official judges the risk of torture to be serious, there is a whole suite of options for them to engage with to ensure that the intelligence can still be shared  if they feel that operational necessity demands it. For instance, it is really clear in the guidance that the British official can essentially pick up the phone and enter into an unwritten agreement with a third party around the treatment of the suspect in question, and there can have zero post-intelligence sharing monitoring to check that such an agreement has been upheld. There is also the practice of passing such cases up to government ministers to make the call even when the risk of torture is thought to be serious. In theory, according to both domestic and international law this binds the government not to share the intelligence. While, the data on such instances is very hard to find, we did manage to locate the number of times that ministers were consulted between 2013 and 2015, and the number of times intelligence sharing was subsequently approved, and the two equate. Ministers were asked 28 times to approve intelligence sharing, and each request was approved. On the one hand this could just reflect the circumstances of each case, but on the other hand this could lead to serious questions about the lack of proper, informed scrutiny of these decisions.  

In your article you refer to a ‘machinery of denial’ constructed by the British state. How does this function? 

Sam Raphael: By invoking this idea of a machinery of denial, we were hoping to paint a picture of a set of individual practices of denial. We conceive of it as machinery in two senses. First is that these practices are durable across time. From the state’s response to the very first allegations around 2003 that Britain was somehow complicit in problematic activities during the ‘war on terror’, right the way through to parliamentary discourse last year around Britain’s approach to human rights and counterterrorism, we see many of the same rhetorical flourishes, discursive structures and methods by which a reckoning is denied. They retain salience across administrations, across departments and across the changing US political and security landscapes.  

Second, although each of these practices are embodied in turn in particular institutional contexts, they reflect something larger about the British state and its desire to avoid a full reckoning with some of the distinctly illiberal practices that it has committed itself to. 

What is behind that desire? If this activity is already known and discussed in the public domain what is the motivation to deny involvement? 

Ruth Blakeley: Among the UK foreign policy establishment there is a deeply entrenched view that Britain is a world leader on questions of democracy and human rights. That is the rhetorical position. Every time the likes of Tony Blair, David Cameron or Theresa May were faced with allegations of collusion in torture, the response was always that the British state does not support, condone or facilitate torture because it is committed to protecting human rights. And on one level the people involved really believe that about the British state and about British political commitments. If you accept these allegations and buy into the argument that there should be a full reckoning—and even prosecutions—you undermine that narrative.  

A second motivation is to protect the UK’s relationship with the US. However critical one might wish to be, there is a view that you can only go so far in alienating the US. If the UK allows a full airing of these issues, it further exposes the CIA. This leads decision-makers in Whitehall to fear that allowing a full airing would not only increase the threat to national security, but also undermine the British position as a key player and partner of the US in its struggles against terrorism and other international issues.  

And third, there is an institutional dimension to this. For many decades—at least as far back as the brutal repression of the Mau Mau in Kenya during the 1950s—the British state has developed a tradition of intelligence services taking particular positions on such allegations of human rights abuses and avoiding a public reckoning at every cost . So, it is not just that there are policy imperatives guiding this stance. There is also a kind of historical practice and pattern of denial. Successive governments have learnt how to avoid accountability and protect the intelligence services from their predecessors, to the extent that this obfuscation has become the norm. It is possible to trace this behaviour from Kenya to the Troubles in Northern Ireland and on to the ‘war on terror’. It is striking how the same kinds of arguments are made over and over again. In this context we are talking about a very small group of political and establishment elites. They are very close-knit communities with something of a revolving door between them. They are very white, largely made up of men, and there is certainly a degree of groupthink. If there was more diversity, we might see a loosening of some of these very embedded and integrated practices, what we call this ‘machinery of denial’, because often institutions change through the introduction of diverse thinking and diverse people. 

What would ideal accountability mechanisms look like? 

Sam Raphael: Firstly, there needs to be reckoning with the past. There is not just a desire to avoid prosecutions or an embarrassing public inquiry, it is also the fact that the British state wishes to maintain operational wiggle room for British involvement in counterterrorism operations where abuse is likely. And on some level, society needs to take account of this.  

In terms of concrete accountability mechanisms, there needs to be a judge-led inquiry with power of subpoena to investigate this recent history of complicity in torture. This is not about full public transparency but there must at least be a body independent from the executive, with the ability to sequester all the documentary evidence that still exists and to subpoena all relevant personnel at whatever level of seniority. Following on from this, there needs to be a system of independent checks and balances embedded in contemporary practice, to avoid any sense that the intelligence services are marking their own homework. Exactly what this looks like, I am not sure we are qualified to say. But a broad conversation must be had about how the British state ensure that human rights are substantively at the heart of intelligence and security practices. 

Ruth Blakeley: One of the challenges for achieving better accountability is that more often than not it falls to civil society to hold government to account. While on some level this is how things should be in a functioning democracy, when it comes to subjects like intelligence practices it is all too easy to overestimate the power of civil society to effectively act as this accountability mechanism. A good example of this came in 2018 when the Investigatory Powers Commissioner reviewed the ‘Consolidated Guidance’. As is standard practice this process was opened to civil society, and academics like us were invited to make written submissions before a roundtable discussion hosted by the Commissioner. On one level you can be seduced into thinking that this ensures transparency. But, of course, this again is an illusion. There was just one roundtable—one opportunity for civil society to interject in the development of this critical guidance—while the other stakeholders, the intelligence services themselves and the relevant government departments, had months to coordinate their response. We should not make the mistake of thinking the power dynamics are even. 

Ruth Blakeley and Sam Raphael are the authors of an article in International Affairs titled ‘Accountability, denial and the future-proofing of British torture.’ It was published in the May 2020 issue, and can be read here.  

Source: International Law and Governance

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Regulating Big Tech: Lessons from COVID-19

10 June

Kate Jones

Kate Jones

Associate Fellow, International Law Programme

COVID-19 demonstrates the potential power of tech companies as a force for good, but also that they have largely devised their own rules in vacuums of both standards and accountability. A new digital deal is both essential and inevitable.


A man uses a Swedish version of the COVID-19 Symptom Tracker app on his smartphone in Stockholm, Sweden, on 29 April 2020. Photo: Getty Images.

A man uses a Swedish version of the COVID-19 Symptom Tracker app on his smartphone in Stockholm, Sweden, on 29 April 2020. Photo: Getty Images.

Misinformation and Disinformation

The coronavirus pandemic, labelled an infodemic by the World Health Organization, has demonstrated the power of false information, whether created or shared without intention of causing harm (misinformation) or knowingly generated to cause harm (disinformation). 

The peddling of false claims online and on television has precipitated arson attacks on 5G mobile phone masts across Europe: over 50 in the UK, at least 16 in the Netherlands, further attacks in Belgium, Cyprus, Italy and Ireland. Mere discussion of a vaccine is stoking the anti-vaccination movement. The scale of disinformation is rife: Facebook alone has placed warning labels on around 50 million pieces of content and as of mid-April, COVID-19 misinformation on Facebook had been viewed an estimated 117 million times. 

At a time when two billion people are at home and largely reliant on the internet and social media for news and information, the platforms have stepped up to the responsibility of curating the content they host for false claims. These steps, admittedly imperfect, centre on removal of or placing warning labels on misinformation and the active promotion of reliable information. It is notable how closely tech companies have been working with public health authorities and governments in directing their crisis efforts. 

This episode debunks the myth that truth carries the most currency in the marketplace of ideas, such that disinformation need not be controlled. It demonstrates both the formidable power of false information as a weapon in public discourse, and the strength of the tech companies’ armoury against it.  The potential of both weapon and armoury cry out for a skeleton framework of standards that reflect the values of human rights and democracy, to prevent their being wielded in ways antithetical to those values.

Privacy issues

At the core of the debate on privacy and COVID-19 tracing apps is whether their purpose is only to inform individuals of risks they may face, or additionally to ‘centralize’ data on the spread of COVID-19 so that governments may understand and tackle the extent of exposure in the community.  The need for protection of privacy and measures required have been carefully debated.  

On the question of purpose, there is a difference of view between Apple and Google and some governments, including the UK and France. The Apple/Google Exposure Notifications System enables public health authorities to develop their own contact tracing apps that will neither identify users, gather location data nor permit use for targeted advertising.

The data remains ‘decentralized’, ie it passes between phones rather than being collated at a central hub.  As of 20 May this API had been requested by 22 governments; but is insufficient for those governments which see one purpose of the app as being to collect centralized data.  Apple will not currently permit its technology to enable centralized data collection.

This situation turns on its head the relationship between regulator and regulated.  Rather than governments setting privacy rules which tech companies must follow, the tech companies are setting privacy limits and giving governments no choice but to accept.  

The reason for this inversion may lie in part in the opacity that cloaks privacy online.  Even governments are not well placed to understand fully how data is held and protected by online companies, therefore cannot easily establish what rules are and are not needed to protect the right to privacy.

Collaboration should be deepened so that governments understand the working of the companies and can develop fundamental privacy standards, by reference to human rights law, that will endure over time, and command respect of both companies and society.  Such collaboration should be accompanied by far greater transparency for individuals and scrutiny possibilities for civil society.  Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation was an important step but is already insufficient.  


There are two emerging sets of governmental approaches to the role of tech companies in our society: largely Western ones, founded in human rights and democracy; and more authoritarian models, centred on government restrictions on speech.  We must ensure that Western models are developed quickly enough to become the world standard and to lead the development of tech companies and their place in society.

Western models need proactively to build a skeleton framework of standards, not passively to allow the market to self-regulate. Western governments can no longer avoid crucial issues of expression and privacy by declining to regulate or ducking contemporary challenges.  

From the COVID-19 crisis it is apparent that tech companies can play a key role in protecting public goods, that it is both legitimate and necessary to require them to do so, and that many companies would welcome a normative framework to guide their actions. 

As the European Commission prepares the draft Digital Services Act and the British Government the draft Online Harms Bill, they must not shy away from constructing a skeleton framework of standards grounded in human rights and democracy, collaborating closely with tech companies and civil society to glean the best ways of doing so. 

This is governments’ responsibility as custodians of the public interest, not a threat against corporate inertia.  Most importantly, they should instil those standards before commercial or authoritarian state interests step in to fill the void.

Source: International Law and Governance

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Webinar: Healthy Civic Space in a Global Health Crisis – What Role for the Business Sector?

Research Event

1 July 2020 – 2:00pm to 3:00pm

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In many countries around the world the space for civil society has been shrinking for some time, and this trend has only increased as a result of the current pandemic. Civic activism – such as the ability to meet, organize and advocate – has been made more difficult through lockdown measures. Checks and balances are being weakened while state surveillance has increased. At the same time, civil society has played a crucial role in community mobilization to address urgent needs during this crisis – whether it be the provision of essential services, informing communities about the virus, or protecting marginalized groups.
The UN’s new report on ‘Covid-19 and Human Rights’ underlines the importance of civil society in ensuring that the response to the crisis is rights-sensitive. With civil society under increased pressure, there is a need for all sectors of society – including the private sector – to support its work. In recent weeks we have seen technology, banking, apparel and entertainment companies issue messages of support for those demonstrating against police treatment of black people. But there is also criticism of co-option as well. There is a need to better understand how the private sector can engage with civil society actors to protect and defend their rights to mobilize citizens, protect liberty and press for transparency and accountability from governments.
This webinar will explore the impact of COVID-19 on civil society actors as well as the potential role of the private sector and other actors in supporting civic space.  This will include ways in which businesses are collaborating with civil society organizations – including community groups – as well as providing support, financial and otherwise, for their efforts. The panel will draw on examples from developments in the Americas, Africa and the Asia-Pacific to discuss the potential opportunities but also the challenges that need to overcome. The event will bring together a diverse group of participants, including civil society, private sector, academia, government and international institutions. 

This webinar is on the record and will made available on the Chatham House website shortly after the event. If you require any additional information please contact Jacqueline Rowe ( in the International Law Programme.

Jacqueline Rowe

Programme Assistant, International Law Programme
020 7389 3287

Source: International Law and Governance

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The UN's Vision for a Digital Future

Members Event

17 June 2020 – 3:00pm to 4:00pm

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Maria Fernanda Garza, Chair; Executive Board Member of Global Networks Committee; and Regional Coordinator for the Americas, International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), Mexico

Fabrizio Hochschild, Special Adviser to the Secretary-General, United Nations

Marietje Schaake, International Policy Director, Cyber Policy Center, Stanford University; Member of European Parliament (2009-19)

Chair: Dr Robin Niblett CMG, Director and Chief Executive, Chatham House

This event is open to the public and will be available via livestream only on Chatham House’s livestream page. Chatham House members do not need to register in advance in order to participate. Questions to the panel will be submitted via Slido using the event code and hashtag #DigitalCooperation.

The scale, spread and speed of change brought about by digital technology is unprecedented and the current levels of international cooperation are unequal to the challenge. Within the space of a few months, the global health crisis has fast-forwarded digitalization across all sectors as well as amplified its core challenges. It has also further accentuated the gaps in connectivity and digital access within, and between, countries as participation in social, political and economic activities are now mainly facilitated by digital infrastructures and internet access. The new pandemic environment has underscored the fragmentation of responses and approaches to technology deployment and adoption. Now, more than ever, cooperation across domains, and across borders, is urgent and critical to realizing the full social and economic potential of digital technologies, mitigating the risks they pose and curtailing any unintended consequences during and after the current crisis.

In this high-level event, co-hosted by the UN High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation, the International Chamber of Commerce and Chatham House, the panellists will discuss recommendations for strengthening cooperation in the digital space. In particular, they will review the UN secretary-general’s Roadmap on Digital Cooperation which lays out the United Nation’s vision for how to engage on key issues such as digital connectivity, human rights and trust and security. 

The discussion will draw on insights from Chatham House’s Digital Society Initiative and Inclusive Governance Initiative which is exploring how governance processes must adapt to engage the diversity of actors critical to delivering global solutions for the digital world.

Source: International Law and Governance

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