Digitisation: What Role for International Geneva? (Digital Day 2019)

On 3rd September, the University of Geneva welcomed a broad set of participants from the public, research, International organisations, NGOs and the private sector to the 2019 Digital Day. Geneva celebrations centred around the theme « Putting people at the core of digital transformation », a challenge discussed in the context of growing pressures to set up ground rules to minimise the risks and maximise the benefits of digitisation in our societies.

The Geneva Science-Policy Interface was one of the co-organisers of this event. We helped set-up an experts’ panel that questioned the role that Geneva – with its longstanding humanitarian tradition and the presence of numerous international bodies directly or indirectly involved with regulation of digital activities – could play in bringing concrete responses to empower and protect users in the context of the digital revolution.

The panel included:

  • Moderator: Isabelle Gattiker (Director, Festival du Film et Forum International sur les Droits Humains)
  • Jean-Yves Art (Senior Director, Microsoft)
  • Yves Daccord (Director General, ICRC)
  • Samia Hurst (Director, Institut Ethique, Histoire, Humanités, University of Geneva)
  • Valentin Zellweger (Permanent Representative of Switzerland to the UN Office at Geneva)

This exchange between research, policy, practice and corporate actors went over the unique added value that the Geneva ecosystem of actors could play as a laboratory to test potential areas of consensus on some of the issues surrounding Internet governance.

In light of a growing number of initiatives, including the UN Secretary General’s High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation and the newly announced Swiss Digital Initiative, panelists seemed to agree that an approach of small steps offered a useful way forward. Building trust over time across different stakeholder groups could hopefully lead to finding common ground across political and cultural borders on a set of minimum standards, values and ethical principles on the way to address issues such as online freedoms, security and privacy.

Snapshots from the discussion also included:

  • Arbitrations between values such as security and freedom require ethical and political responses, not technical ones.
  • Social contracts need to be translated to the digital era. Geneva offers a unique space, with a high concentration of relevant actors on this issue, to have this debate in an inclusive and bottom-up manner.
  • Although global solutions would be favoured by industry (level-playing field), broad multilateral consensus around Internet governance issues seems unlikely at this stage: soft policies and temporary alliances of like-minded countries seem the most likely scenario in the foreseeable future.
  • There are growing expectations for big players in the ICT private sector (GAFA) to engage in global dialogues around digitisation and to contribute to finding collective solutions.
  • Digitation pushes humanitarian actors such as the ICRC to quickly reinvent some of their core functions and ways of working. Digital data is becoming a question of life and death in some conflict areas.

As Swiss and Geneva authorities step-up their efforts to offer a conducive space to find common ground and consensus on critical challenges surrounding digitisation, sustained dialogue between researchers, policy, industry, technical and civil society organisations will remain essential. As part of this broader picture, the GSPI remains available to facilitate the development of effective collaborations between science, policy and practice actors from the Geneva ecosystem and beyond.