UNESCO upgrades its global toolkit for the digital world

On the 70th anniversary of its creation, UNESCO adopts new tools to address privacy, freedom of expression, radicalization, hate speech, access to information and knowledge, and other key challenges of the digital age.

During debate at its 38th General Conference, UNESCO addressed pressing questions for the contemporary citizens. How do I retrieve the memories of my family when their media of record is obsolete? How am I ensured that my personal information remains protected? Is my government equipped to offer me comprehensive online services? Are journalists protected enough? How can young people develop the critical thinking that will help them navigate the web without falling prey to radicalization? Can we make the Internet an open, global and safe space for every one?

We live in knowledge societies, where communication and information has become ubiquitous and integral to everything we do. These realities must drive policies and toolsets of the 21st century.

We are developing towards knowledge societies, where digital divides are changing, and communication and information is becoming ubiquitous and integral to everything we do. Policies and toolsets must be tailored to these realities of the 21st century.

Gathering 195 Member States, UNESCO deliberated on these and other issues and adopted resolutions, which will have echoes for governments and ordinary women and men around the world.

Following the two-year global consultation process that led to the groundbreaking CONNECTing the Dots conference on Internet-related issues, UNESCO now has a consensual support to work in the four areas of (1) Access to Knowledge and Information (2) Freedom of Expression, (3) Privacy, and the (4) Ethical dimensions of the Information Society.

The General Conference also adopted the Internet Universality principle to ground future online developments in a coherent set of four principles that have come to be known as ROAM, an acronym stands for Human Rights, Openness, Access and Multi-stakeholder participation.

UNESCO will not work alone. This mandate requires the active participation of all stakeholders, starting with individual citizens enabled to seek, receive and impart information. Recognizing Media and Information Literacy as a mainstream competence of our age to identify relevant and credible content, many Member States urged UNESCO to increase its work to address the challenges of countering hate speech, radicalization and violent extremism.

Governments confirmed also that freedom of expression and press freedom are a bedrock for development in all its forms and welcomed the inclusion of these concerns in the 2030 Development Agenda. In line with resolutions across UN bodies, the Member States called upon UNESCO to continue strengthening its leadership on Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity.

Because information is for all, UNESCO also adopted a “Recommendation on preservation and access to documentary heritage including in digital form.” Archives and libraries public or private are faced with multiple threats: negligence, technological obsolescence and commoditization, natural disasters, conflicts and targeted attacks. Each in their own way, they endanger the memory of humankind. The hope is that, with time, it reaches the same levels of recognition as other more established UNESCO instruments on heritage.

From 2016 onwards, each country will celebrate 28th September will celebrate as the “International Day for the Universal Access to Information.” By proclaiming this observance, UNESCO seeks to raise awareness on how important the right to access information is to improve people’s lives. It will help catalyze initiatives to expand information access in population groups and in countries that remain affected by knowledge divides.

One large group affected is the 1 billion persons with disabilities. By endorsing The New Delhi Declaration on Inclusive ICTs for Persons with Disabilities, UNESCO asserted its ambition to facilitate their participation in employment, education and more through enabling technologies. UNESCO’s philosophy is clear and simple: inclusion is not a burden; it is an asset.

UNESCO will translate all these new initiatives into concrete action by in the years to come. In the footsteps of the UN General Assembly’s adoption of a new ambitious agenda of 17 Sustainable Development Goals, UNESCO holds that no economic, environmental and social transformation can be sustainable without bringing the full potential of communication and information to everyone.

In his concluding remarks, the Chair presiding over the debate on Communication and Information, Dr Abdulla El Reyes, told the General Conference: “Our mission to build peace through the means of dialogue, of communication and information, is a fragile and ongoing effort. It is essential work for humankind in the present and in the future. This is the meaning of the work that UNESCO carries through on a daily basis.”