SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you, Uzra. And I actually did not want to interrupt the important intervention that was going on. (Laughter.) So we can continue that, or I’m – I’ll pick it up later. But I am so gratified to see so many colleagues here today both from governments but also from the private sector. I think it speaks to the importance that we all attach to this effort, initiative, and opportunity.
We’ve been extremely focused, thanks to Uzra’s leadership, Nate’s leadership, on all things digital, and we’ve in fact reorganized our department to make sure that we are appropriately resourced and organized to do that. A big part of that, though, is the work of the Freedom Online Coalition, and this combination of partner governments, but also partnership with civil society, the private sector, is absolutely critical to achieving the results that we all seek.
When the coalition was founded over a decade ago, I think you’ve already discussed the fact that the technological landscape was just a little bit different than it is today. And it’s quite remarkable. We were talking about this also in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals when they were elaborated. I think in the initial document there was one reference to the digital space, and now here we are. Some of us were together just the other day also looking at how artificial intelligence might be used to advance the Sustainable Development Goals.
But back then, when we were starting the Freedom Online Coalition, we had half as many people as we do today with access to the internet. And that of course is still a work in progress because access remains one of the critical things that we have to achieve. But the internet’s extraordinary potential as a catalyst – to convene new communities literally spanning the globe, to enable individuals to document earth-shaking events with smartphones in their pockets, to galvanize entire movements, as we’ve seen – that was just beginning to be understood. The risks – those posed by everything from surveillance technologies to online harassment and abuse, the spread of disinformation – they were largely absent from the public dialogue. And the next generation of game-changing digital technologies, like generative artificial intelligence, had of course yet to be invented.
So we fast-forward to today – and not exactly a secret to anyone in this room – the internet, other digital technologies, have fundamentally, and maybe more important or just as important, likely forever transformed our societies and our economies; literally and figuratively rewiring how we live, how we work, how we connect. And we’ve all seen digital technologies demonstrating the incredible power of, potential to be drivers for development progress. And we’ve seen the work that can be done to empower people to defend their human rights, which are the foundation, and indeed, in many ways the ultimate goal of development.
We know and we’ve seen the applicability of digital technologies to solving some of the biggest challenges that we face – including achieving the SDGs, and doing that under the 2030 Agenda. Again, you all know this, but it’s a stark reality and it’s one that we have to confront. That reality is that we are far from achieving the goals that we set for 2030, halfway to the deadline that we gave ourselves to hit these targets. We’re on track to hit just 15 percent. That is simply unacceptable. We have progress plateauing on half the goals. On nearly a third, we’ve actually moved backward; we’ve regressed. That’s unacceptable.
Now, obviously there were profound drivers and profound shocks that explain some of this evolution. But again, a big part of this week in New York and maybe the central theme of this General Assembly is to refocus and rededicate ourselves to achieving the SDGs. And there is extraordinary potential to use technology and to work in the digital space to do that.
As I mentioned, on Monday we had this rather remarkable convening of representatives from government, the private sector, civil society to discuss how to deploy AI to reach the SDGs. Policy and international cooperation around digital technologies are another critical part of this discussion. And that’s why I’m so pleased that we’re all together today.
We can develop the best technologies in the world, but if we haven’t determined how to govern them in partnership with those who share our values, these technologies are likely to be misused for repressive or destabilizing purposes, making communities less peaceful, less prosperous, less secure, and unfortunately, more undermining of human rights. They’re also less likely to be leveraged for advancing societal progress around the globe.
The Freedom Online Coalition has demonstrated the potential to be a powerful international platform for all of these discussions – critical discussions, essential discussions, timely discussions. The United States has been very proud to help this organization grow into a major center of action to shape the inclusive, rights-affirming use of digital technologies during our year as chair.
The coalition is taking the lead on countering digital authoritarianism and the misuse of digital technologies. In the spring, the coalition issued guiding principles on surveillance technology designed to advance the responsible use of this technology, to prevent its misuse. Forty-eight countries, including many outside the coalition, have since endorsed these principles, providing the foundation for international action on a key human rights challenge.
And I think it’s important not to understate the power and potential of this, because we’ve seen this time and again. It takes time, but the more you’re able to establish a norm, the more you’re able to create a basic standard, the more adherence you get to that norm, the more powerful the effect. And what seems to be something that’s not a shared idea or ideal in any one moment suddenly becomes, before you know it, exactly that. And that’s a tremendous source of strength. It’s a source of legitimacy to do what we need to do to make sure that technologies are being used for good, not for bad.
The coalition is also focused on advancing human rights in the digital space. We’ll soon issue donor principles for human rights in the digital age, which will help shape how public and private investments in digital innovation are actually made. And it’s also helping to guide – here again – the responsible use of artificial intelligence.
The coalition intends to develop a pledge to incorporate responsible AI practices in government development, procurement, and the use of AI. That’s a mouthful, but it’s also really important. It’s going to commit governments to take an approach to AI systems that actually uphold human rights, international law, democratic values – while managing safety risks. We will put into action our duty to protect human rights under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
The United States intends to build on the momentum that we’ve already developed through the rest of this year and then past it. We’ll pass the baton to the incoming chair, the Netherlands, and we’re grateful for the Netherlands’ leadership. And we’re excited to welcome three new members this year – Iceland, Slovakia, South Korea – already making powerful contributions to the coalition’s efforts.
But I think we also recognize that we can’t shape the terms of our technological future through this coalition alone. We need to work with partners from governments in every region of the globe to direct digital technologies toward development, toward human rights, toward the larger global good. And that’s why we’ve asked many of you to join us today.
We’re committed to working with partners to boost access and inclusion to digital technologies. We’re also accelerating work to close the gender digital divide – there are two digital divides. There’s a basic digital divide, where entire countries, in some cases, and communities or parts of countries and others, do not benefit from access. But there’s another digital divide, and that’s the gender digital divide that we have to bridge. And we’re doing that, including through the Women in the Digital Economy initiative that Vice President Harris announced just last spring. This will help make digital technologies more affordable and easier to access. It will improve women and girls’ digital literacy and skills. It will promote online safety and security. It will foster women-led development of digital technologies.
In the days ahead, in the months ahead, in the years ahead, it will ultimately not be our technological capabilities themselves that define our future, but how we choose to use them. And that choice – that choice – is one of the most important that we have before us as people, as societies, as countries, as human beings. The work of people around this table, in this room, listening in online, watching in online is absolutely central to making sure, to the best of our ability, we make the right choice. That’s an enormous responsibility, but one I’m so grateful to see so many are committed to trying to achieve.
Thank you very, very much. (Applause.)