Committed to connecting the world

ICTs for a Sustainable World #ICT4SDG

Message from ITU Secretary-General, Dr Hamadoun Touré
on Human Rights and Development

Regular Session of the Chief Executives Board for Coordination


28 October 2011, New York, United States

(Presented by Houlin Zhao, ITU Deputy Secretary-General)

Dear CEB Members,

What an incredible moment in history we are living in. The world is changing before our very eyes. Changing so fast that sometimes we can barely notice or understand it. And what we do manage to see is most likely just a hint of what our future holds. A glimpse of a world where rapid change goes hand in hand with technological advances – change that brings about far-reaching social, economic and political transformation that will touch every corner of the globe, every community, every citizen.

What is certain today is that humankind is explicitly revealing its innate desire to be connected. Citizens of our global village are creating and exploring multiple new ways to connect, to share, to mobilize – we could say that we have identified our future heritage, our global common bond - and its digital.

We only need to study social media trends to discover that the digital revolution is not just being televised, it is being tweeted too! The Google Plus (Google+) social network just recently launched has now over 50 million users and growing fast – it reached 10 million users in just 16 days (it took Facebook nearly three years to reach this number).

The rise of user-generated online video - driven massively by the rise of cheap but high quality camera phones and faster connectivity speeds for quicker uploads and shares – is truly phenomenal. YouTube users for example are now spending a total of 2.9 billion hours per month on the site (that’s over 300,000 years, longer than recorded human history).

One in nine people is on Facebook which claims nearly 800 million users (250 million of whom access Facebook through their mobile devices). And it is now an important driver of commerce with more than 2.5 million websites already fully integrated with Facebook.

And then there’s Twitter – just five years old, tweeting more than a billion tweets a week, signing up 500,000 new users a day and established as a practically indispensable tool for real-time journalism and crowd-sourced information gathering. 

As one demonstrator in the Middle East recently said in a matter of fact manner – we use Facebook to mobilize, Twitter to live report, and YouTube to broadcast our stories. This is our present day context. What I believe is a mere glimpse of the near future when even greater ubiquity of mobile and smart devices and faster connectivity will drive incredible socio-economic change particularly in the developing world. ITU’s recently published report – ‘The World in 2011: ICTs in Facts and Figures’ – shows that we are living in a world where seven billion people have almost six billion mobile subscriptions between them – that’s an incredible (and increasing) global penetration of 87%, with 79% in the developing world.

What’s more, according to our research, over the last five years, developing countries have increased their share of the world’s Internet users from 44% in 2006 to 62% in 2011. ICT’s are narrowing the knowledge divide and more people everywhere are benefiting from greater access to health and education information for instance; small-to-medium sized enterprises are more entrepreneurial; and schoolchildren in India will soon be using affordable tablet eBooks wirelessly connected to banks of knowledge in the cloud.

This context of rapid and constant technological change presents important opportunities for the UN system. The ITU for example, together with UNESCO, is forging ahead with the Broadband Commission initiative which has just issued four ambitious but achievable targets aimed at increasing broadband usage. But what is glaringly obvious from the work of the Commission – that gathers together some 60 governmental and private sector leaders – is that it is not about broadband itself but about how broadband will be applied, what change it can stimulate in eHealth, in e-Education, in the developed world, the developing world and in the world’s Least Developed Countries (LDCs). Mobile technologies, coupled with broadband, are truly revolutionary and provide enormous opportunities as significant contributors and ready-made catalysts for faster progress towards reaching the MDGs.

With opportunity comes challenges. In the age of ICTs, ever smarter mobile devices, and social media, we can expect the first serious test of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights since the Charter was signed in December, 1948 and which all 193 UN Member States have sworn to uphold.

Article 19 was a very far-reaching and forward thinking proclamation that went much further than other constitutional guarantees of the right to freedom of opinion and expression at the time. This is because it guarantees freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. That means all media and all frontiers.

The drafters of the Charter couldn't have foreseen the role that the Internet, wireless connectivity, mobile devices and social media would play in how people exercised their freedom of expression. But as it was written after the second world war, they had seen how important modern media of the time (such as radio and telegraphy) had been in the fight for freedom, and conversely how it had also been used to deprive people of their right to freedom of expression. While there is no human right that addresses the need for connectivity per se, we should ask ourselves if Article 19 gives truth to the shared human need to communicate and hence our right to communicate and if the global communication network which ITU has helped to build is the most concrete, physical expression of that right?

When we speak about people’s right to communicate and to access information we must understand this in a global setting where the distinctions between content and connectivity are rapidly eroding. We can no longer separate the content people crave from the infrastructure that channels it. If Article 19 is to resonate in the 21st century then it arguably needs to include access to new media, the internet and even wireless broadband networks.

Lurking beneath these momentous opportunities and challenges are more menacing threats. The disruptive power of technology also has a sinister side and is giving rise to dangerous threats which such a discussion cannot ignore. These threats to present and future generations include cyber-attacks and online child pornography which exist in a legal vacuum, often going undetected and unchecked because the world is still stuck in neutral gear when it comes to matching such criminal behavior with even more sophisticated cyber tools. If we speak of coming wars it is almost a certainty that cyber war is a not too distant reality. We already glimpse the threats as manifested with complex viruses and worms such as Stuxnet, not to mention attacks against the UN itself.

The UN system needs to take the lead and ensure that the double-edged sword of new technologies brings about  positive transformational change and that the risks are studied, tracked, mitigated and rendered as harmless as possible. The ITUs near-150 year relationship with governments and industry leaders can be leveraged to convene and influence the coming debates of fundamental and profound importance to future generations. Let’s tackle it together now. Let’s anticipate the change ahead and ready ourselves for technology’s disruptive power – the good, and the bad.