Toward a just, inclusive, and peaceable digital society: promises and perils, ethical and moral considerations

Presentation by Liberato C. Bautista, President of CoNGO, at the WSIS Forum 2022 Special Track on “Opening of the ICTs for Industry 4.0 and Emerging Digital Technologies for Sustainable Development”

 

11 April 2022 | Geneva, Switzerland | Hybrid

Toward a just, inclusive, and peaceable digital society: promises and perils, ethical and moral considerations

Excellencies, esteemed UN officials, NGO colleagues, ladies and gentlemen:

Thank you Ms. Sah for inviting me to this panel in my capacity as the President of CoNGO—the Conference of NGOs in Consultative Relationship with the United Nations. The collaboration between WSIS and CoNGO is alive, I want to claim from the outset.

Please allow me to respond to the two questions you asked me to address from the vantage point of a civil society and faith-based NGO leader and as social ethicist. You asked me about what concerns come to mind when today we discuss the matter about emerging digital technologies, especially in relation to sustainable development? 

You also asked me about specific moral and ethical concerns important to consider when talking about emerging digital technologies. On this point, I will focus on WSIS Action Line 10, which is about the ethical dimensions of the Information Society, dealing with the common good, with ethics, with human rights, the prevention of the abusive uses of ICTs and shared values.

Given five minutes to respond, let me attempt a few responses. 

In 2009, during my first term as President of the Conference of NGOs, we entered into a memorandum of agreement with the ITU Director General, for CoNGO to be a  civil society focal point for the WSIS Forum. From the WSIS Summits in Geneva (2003) and Tunis (2005), CoNGO has taken a lead role in organizing civil society presence unprecedented in many ways at a major UN conference. 

The CoNGO President during the WSIS Summits, Renate Bloem, later reflected about her experience in the summits, and her comments then remain our assessment even today. Ms. Bloem recounted that  “the substantial and procedural nature of WSIS have been a major step forward in building a new model for global governance and a constructive way of engaging civil society into the process.” 

Looking back, Ms. Bloem reflected that  “WSIS was a successful test of the capacity of the multilateral system to find alternative and innovative ways to integrate a wider range of actors, including NGOs, academic institutions and local authorities, in a long-standing political process. The stronger involvement of civil society was therefore a very relevant factor in dealing more adequately with the specific challenges raised by the Information Society.” 

Almost 20 years later, civil society participation in the WSIS process remains crucial. CoNGO Presidents Ms. Bloem, Mr. Cyril Ritchie, or I, have spoken annually at these Forums with the message that civil society voice is crucial in elaborating for what makes, among other values, a just, inclusive, solidarious, participatory and sustainable, information society. 

“Competent and responsible civil society input enhances coherent and implementable governmental output”. We remain committed to this enterprise every time we as NGO representatives claim a place at the table, just like this WSIS Forum and this panel.

On the second question, I would like to say that the digitization of knowledge and the digitalization of information—in all its applications, but especially in industry and commerce, are fraught with moral and ethical considerations. These moral and ethical considerations point to digital divide and inequalities already raised earlier, including their intersections with larger economic, political, social and cultural divides.

These moral and ethical considerations are even more crucial as we deal with digital communications technology like the “Internet of Things” (IoT), cloud computing, artificial intelligence, machine learning, digital twin, and the like. 

Knowledge is indeed power. We must therefore strive for an information society—including its technologies—so that knowledge is produced and shared justly, equitably, and peaceably. If the magnetic pull of the moral compass were to point to the common good, are these communications and information technologies close to being common good, indeed common public goods? 

Because communication is intrinsic to our humanity and the relations we build, the right to communication and access to it are “basic human rights, essential to human dignity and to a just and democratic society.” Nothing in our pursuit of new technologies should derogate the dignity and human rights of peoples.

Building a future with technologies changing by the second and besieged by intersecting pandemics, including health, economic and social pandemics, is fraught with both promise and peril. It could spell the leaving behind of many that would then frustrate the achievement of the SDGs.

Alarm is already sounded in places where analogue services are going to be cut in favor of digitalized streaming even as more than three billion people coming from developing countries remain dependent on radio for their information source.

Two NGOs that I represent at the UN—CoNGO and United Methodist Church-General Board of Church and Society—has invariably asserted in their advocacy work that a strong moral compass is needed to direct digital communication and technology to the ethical true north whose elements must contitute respect for peace and the upholding of the fundamental values of freedom, equality, solidarity, tolerance, shared responsibility, and respect for nature and its sustainability.  

These are values of moral significance in the crafting of normative multilateral  frameworks. At the core of these ethical values are the voice and agency of human beings who must be conscious rather than passive producers and consumers of digitalized knowledge and information.

Crucial to the principle of access to and stewardship of information communications technology is the recognition that vulnerable and marginalized peoples, especially migrants, indigenous peoples, internally displaced peoples, older persons, people with disabilities, and refugees will have varying difficulties accessing such digital technologies. 

For indigenous peoples, two concerns about digitization of indigenous knowledge and the digitalization of information they have produced have to do with whether the principle of free, prior and informed consent has been recognized or not, and whether indigenlous peoples will the technology to access back what is digitally stored. 

Nothing in the storing of knowledge and information should alienate these from their owners and producers. Speaking of perils, digital technologies must refuse to be the purveyor of the evil of systemic racism, xenophobia and racial discrimination. Digitalization must be the handmaiden of transborder solidarity and global citizenship. These and more are concerns related to the achievement of what is called digital justice which also includes free and equitable access by people to information communication technologies, respect for privacy, freedom from being manipulated, misinformed, and from undue appropriation of people’s information by digital media.

The Digital Society we ought to foster must be peaceable and secure—for the people and the planet. This is in keeping with a global ethic already inscribed in Agenda 2030, and the 17 SDGs. We must ensure that technologies of digitization and digitalization do not diminish but rather enhance and flourish human,  social and planetary connections. 

Thank you for your kind attention.

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The Rev. Dr. Liberato C. Bautista is President of CoNGO–the Conference of NGOs in Consultative Relationship with the United Nations and represents the United Methodist Church–General Board of Church and Society at the United Nations.