Raquel Jorge / Nov 2023
If in the past global technology governance received the attention of a specific number of highly devoted specialized organizations, technical communities and multi-stakeholder dialogues, in recent years the building-up of how technology should be governed at the international level has sparked interest at the (geo)political level. Either because countries aim to foster technology as a new opportunity for cooperation and bridge to keep multilateralism on track, or because countries look forward to framing the principles of certain technologies to plug into the competitive race, the common ground is that technology policy has become a discussed element for international governance.
Amid the launch of nationally led initiatives by major technological countries such as China and the United States, and at a time where digital policy is being governed through “minilaterals” - or coalitions of the willing - with a set of selected countries and targeted goals, international organizations have revamped their role as shapers of a policy discussion as technology that is growing and demanding. The United Nations Secretary-General convened the first ever High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation in 2018 to advance a global cooperation approach to the digital space. Since then, the UN has created the Office of the UN Envoy on Technology, and has proposed the Global Digital Compact (GDC), which will be one of the backbones of the upcoming Summit of the Future in 2024.
The European Union has been contributing to this governance for several decades, although with different speed, intensity, resources, and scope. The EU was an active participant in the launch of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) forum in the first phase in Geneva in 2003 and during the preparation of the 2005 Geneva Plan of Action. As an example, the EU and the International Telecommunications Union, the UN specialized agency, started its cooperation in 2008 to harmonize ICT policies within the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries.
However, one of the most pressing topics in global governance is Artificial Intelligence, and these last days it has experienced a leap forward. The United Nations launched last week the High-Level Advisory Body on Artificial Intelligence, which stands out as one of the main platforms to contribute to the GDC. The co-Chairs come from Spain and Zimbabwe, which displays a major prominence of the EU’s voice in the global discussion as well as a focus on developing countries. Also this week, the G7 leaders agreed on the first International Guiding Principles and a voluntary Code of Conduct on AI, including further discussions on generative AI - which has boomed into the global discussion in a short time period - and the role for developers.
In the meantime, the U.S. Administration has released a like-minded Executive Order on safe, secure and trustworthy AI, whereby it pinpoints the need to expand multilateral, bilateral and multistakeholder engagements, although the latter has long criticized not being included in discussions that are becoming largely states-driven. This week, the United Kingdom has launched the AI Safety Summit, which has opened up discussions during these months on whether China should be invited, with diverging opinions, also across EU Member States.
The role of the European Union in global AI governance is a clear opportunity and it should be characterised by three actions. First, a greater level of ambition with a roadmap of diplomatic actions to engage with third countries in common agendas throughout the coming year. The EU Council approved the first-ever framework on digital diplomacy in July 2022, which aims to turn digital policy into a core component and integral part of the EU’s external action, through its network of Delegations and a coordinated voice in global fora. The immediate visible output of this effort is the AI Joint Roadmap from the EU-US Trade and Technology Council and initiated debates on generative AI.
However, the EU has many other initiatives than the TTC. For instance, the Global Gateway, which has flagged digitalisation as the top priority sector and addresses AI through technical assistance projects. Jointly with these much-needed grounded projects, the engagement with partners such as Kenya, Nigeria, Kyrgyzstan, Cabo Verde or with Latin American and Caribbean countries through the Digital Alliance, should be layered at the diplomatic level. The search for common agendas to be elevated in international fora such as the Global Partnership on AI, the AI4Good Summit or the OECD.AI meetings is a way forward.
Second, there is a need for a comprehensive set of resources to support the network of stakeholders supporting this goal. For instance, Japan is the GPAI Lead Council Co-Chair during 2022 and 2023, and India is the incoming country. Deepening AI discussions in the EU-Japan Digital Partnership Agreement or the recently launched EU-India TTC is already taking place, but the speed should be faster as the timing is pressing. Just as an example, India’s flagship embassies have been providing courses on Science & Technology in developing countries since the 1960s.
Third, the EU needs to foster this global AI governance with a coordinated approach across Member States. So far, the AI Act proposal, an ongoing and complex process which is expected to be finished during the Spanish Presidency to the EU Council, has received strongly divergent views across countries. The European Commission’s proposal for a list of critical technologies, where AI is the second priority, will depend on the risk assessment that each Member State provides. The approach that they bring to AI and how to engage with third countries (trusted, like-minded, rivals) will be key for EU’s foreign policy on technology.
There is no doubt that countries are ramping up their strategies to influence the global agenda on technology and, particularly, of AI. The EU has not been blind to this reality, but the acceleration of discussions requires greater resources, speed and coordination.
The opportunity is clear, and the time is now.