2024: A significant year for global digital and AI governance

Last year, the conversation on AI and digital governance continued to be dominated by Western countries and China. Chloe Teevan argues that 2024 could be the year kickstarting  a more open global conversation on digital and AI governance, paving the way for meaningful international cooperation.

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    With the release of the United Nations’ Global Digital Compact (GDC) in September and a growing emphasis on inclusive AI governance at the multilateral level, 2024 could be the year that meaningful international cooperation around global digital and AI governance kicks off.

    Of course, geopolitical divisions between China and the West over the governance of the internet and of emerging technologies will continue through 2024 and beyond. But developments in 2024 should allow for a greater focus on ways to accelerate the fulfilment of the sustainable development goals (SDGs) through meaningful connectivity and access to innovative technologies, whilst protecting fundamental rights. 

    Developing and emerging economies have already become more vocal, while the EU’s approach to the GDC has demonstrated a real desire to focus on common goals rather than on competition with China. Moving forward, the GDC and the opening up of conversations on global digital and AI governance can be the basis for better cooperation between the EU and partners in Africa, Latin America and Asia-Pacific. 

    The Global Digital Compact brings clarity

    While non-binding, the GDC will be a significant development in its effort to produce a truly global framework for digital governance that gives a strong voice to the priorities and needs of countries across the globe. It aims to ‘outline shared principles for an open, free and secure digital future for all’. Some of the issues that it is likely to cover include connectivity, protecting the splintering of the internet, control over personal data, human rights, and promoting trust online.

    Aside from laying out common principles, the GDC is expected to reiterate the separate and complementary nature of the different institutions for global digital governance in an effort to resolve some of the questions around the mandates of different UN agencies and other multilateral fora, including the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). 

    It is perhaps of special significance to small and medium countries in Europe and Africa, given their particular attachment to multilateralism, with Sweden and Kenya appointed as co-facilitators of the GDC. 


    From India to Brazil: The G20 and inclusive digital and AI governance

    The passing of the presidency of the G20 from India to Brazil in 2024, with South Africa taking the lead in 2025, also offers important opportunities for a more inclusive approach to global digital and AI governance.

    On the one hand, the presidency allows these countries to highlight topics that they see as essential for sustainable and inclusive digital development. India focused attention on digital public infrastructure, drawing on its own experience of developing the India Stack, which is composed of national infrastructure in the areas of digital ID, digital payments and data sharing infrastructure. Indian prime minister Narendra Modi also announced the launch of the ‘Data for Development Capacity Building Initiative’ for the development of the Global South and proposed that the G20 should move beyond its 2019 principles to ensure that all countries benefit from AI “in areas like socio-economic development, global workforce and R&D [research and development].

    Brazil plans to continue to shine light on the question of data sharing for sustainable development – a topic of significant importance for many developing and emerging economies. “Access to quality data sets is likely to emerge as an increasingly vocal demand as the global conversation around AI governance develops”.

    Global AI governance

    2023 was an extremely busy year for AI governance, but the conversation remained dominated by Western countries on the one hand and by China on the other. In 2024, a more open global conversation is beginning.

    The UN has taken the lead in building a more global conversation with the appointment of a high-level advisory body on AI that recently published its interim report and is now gathering comments. The panel is due to finalise its report in mid-2024, and again, the expectation is that it will integrate the views and interests of a much more diverse range of countries. Indeed, the interim report strongly supports global coordination on AI, including prioritising universal buy-in by different countries and stakeholders. The report will ultimately be only a first step in developing a more global approach to AI governance, but it is an important first step.

    Multiple national and regional developments can also strengthen the voices of non-traditional voices on global AI governance. For example, Africa is also stepping up its efforts to develop its approach to AI governance, and the African Union is due to adopt its own AI strategy at the AU summit on 17-18 February 2024, while a number of countries have already launched a National AI strategy. ECDPM’s Melody Musoni highlights the importance of the strategy engaging with the question of how the AU hopes to address “‘the underlying challenges of limited use of African data and provide a clear policy strategy on how the AU intends to address algorithmic biases moving forward.

    As the data economy and the fast growth of AI gather speed, the EU and its allies must also be willing to engage in a meaningful conversation around data sharing with developing and emerging economies.

    An opportunity for real cooperation

    The above developments open up the possibility for a much more inclusive approach to digital and AI governance. For many developing and emerging countries, geopolitical quarrels between the West and China are distracting attention from essential questions of connectivity and access to technology for sustainable development. 

    The EU, working where possible with like-minded allies at the G7 and beyond, should seize this moment to refocus on an inclusive agenda centering on common interests with the Global South. This process has begun with the growing focus on quality infrastructure, which is visible in the EU’s Global Gateway and in the G7 Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment. That approach will need to be scaled up with regard to financing digital transformation if it is to have a meaningful impact. 

    But as the data economy and the fast growth of AI gather speed, the EU and its allies must also be willing to engage in a meaningful conversation around data sharing with developing and emerging economies. This is undoubtedly a complex topic and one that the EU cannot take lightly, given its strong commitment to personal data protection. 

    At the same time, there are real openings for the EU to demonstrate new approaches on data sharing and AI. Even as it leads the way in attempting to regulate AI, its evolving approach to supporting innovative data uses under the European Data Strategy and its attempt to power a more inclusive European AI innovation ecosystem through its AI innovation package may be a model for wider international cooperation. 

    The views are those of the authors and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

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