Jeffrey Sachs | Professor, Columbia University and Special Advisor to UN Secretary-General, USA

Why Connectivity is Vital for the Sustainable Development Goals

Good morning everybody. The flight arrived on time but we could not make it come earlier, so I apologize for being a few minutes late and missing President Prodi’s introduction. However, I was happy to hear most of Nicholas Negroponte’s wonderful remarks.

I think a starting point is that the role of information and communication technology for sustainable development is very well recognised. So, we are not in an uphill struggle. The Agenda 2030, which is the operative guidance for all nations achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, amply discusses information technology. And probably the most important single reference is in Goal 9, which may have been mentioned already, which says “Significantly increase access to information and communications technology and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020”. So there is already a strong mandate for universal access and, when one goes through each of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, technology is mentioned in almost every one, information technology is mentioned in several of them. In the Education Goal, SDG 4, there is a special mandate for assisting in the training and education in information and communication technology. In SDG 5 on gender equality, there is a specific mention about the role of information and communication technology and promoting gender equality. In SDG 7 there is a specific mention for energy infrastructure and there is a general mandate also in SDG 17, which is “Fully operationalize the technology bank and science, technology and innovation capacity-building mechanism for least developed countries by 2017 and enhance the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology”. So this is a good start. This means that the importance of broadband access, mobile technologies and information and communications technologies, generally I think, is well appreciated.

The Broadband Commission is a commission of the United Nations, led by two of the agencies, the International Telecommunications Unions and UNESCO, and the Broadband Commission has been meeting for several years. Nicholas Negroponte and I are at most of the meetings and that Commission is specifically charged with mobilizing broadband for sustainable development. So, that is the purpose of the Broadband Commission. And it has been, I think, a useful exercise but again it shows the high level of recognition that we are in an information age and if people around the world are to be prosperous, safe and active citizens, they need to be part of the modern information and communications technologies. That, I think, means that the notion that this is a basic human right is within reach, certainly. And indeed, I am not sure about all of the human rights protocols, because I have not had time to check to what extent that reference is already made, but I do not think that it is a difficult argument in practice, given this very wide recognition within the UN system that we are talking about something that is quite fundamental.

The second point that I would make along the same lines is that the role of information and communications technology in every important sector of the economy is evident. So, this is what in economic development we call a general-purpose technology, which means that it is so central to economic life that it pervades every sector of the economy. And there are not very many general-purpose technologies: the steam engine was one, another was electrification and I would put Internet broadband and digitalization in general certainly as a third, on equal par, with those others actually.

In our own development experience, for example the work that Sonia and I are engaged in is healthcare delivery in low-income settings, it is all based on access to information technology. Smartphones in the hands of community health workers is essential, telemedicine is essential, teledentistry is essential. Increasingly, remote diagnostics, remote imaging, remote reading of x-ray images, maybe half way around the world. New portable imaging equipment, like sonograms and other equipment for safe pregnancy are also pervasive now.

Similarly, in education, Nicholas Negroponte showed us the picture of the children teaching each other. We have a mandate for quality pre-K through universal secondary education. I would make the claim that this will be impossible without very active use of broadband to extend the curriculum, to train teachers, to connect classrooms, to help monitor schools, to help manage school systems and so on.

A third area is agriculture, where the productive of agriculture increasingly is precision agriculture based on very high-resolution GPS applications of fertilizer seed, machinery, water management and so forth.

In the area of jobs, which is SDG 8, there is no question that information technology, literacy, is a sine qua non for being able to be an effective member of the labour force now. And many schools around the world, for instance in New York City, teach coding as a basic idea so that people can understand the world they are in and so they also hope to get a job after.

I would say information communications technology is essential for good governance, because almost every equality governance system right now, for example payments of bills, collection of taxes, transparency of procurement and, very importantly, individual identity, which is crucial for legal standing, is now an online phenomenon. And India’s lead in the Aadhaar biometric online idea I think is very notable and inspiring, and the African nations are all clamouring for India to come help to extend this online unique identification using biometrics to the African context. For ecological conservation ICT is essential, especially for remote sensing, for interpretation of daily satellite images, to track illegal fishing, to track illegal deforestation, to track forest fires and so forth.

ICTs are vital in the so-called Internet-of-Things which will connect devices to enable energy efficiency, smart grids, smart transport, sustainable cities, high introduction of renewable energy, so all the de-carbonisation cannot be done otherwise. And we know now that information technology is central for finance, because places that never have had and never will have a physical bank are engaged in online banking and payment services and physical cash may disappear soon, and it already is disappearing in places like Sweden, where cash payments are not accepted increasingly and one has to pay actually through online payments.

So, all of this suggests that the spirit of the discussion that this is a basic feature of being part of the present day economy and achieving sustainable development is not only correct but absolutely pervasive.

The third point that I would make is for the importance of defining what access means. Access could mean that you can buy a data package, that there is physical coverage in your area, access could mean that you have a data package that you can afford, for most families, access probably should mean something much, much deeper than that. That is, access to the services of the information technology in all of the areas that I mentioned, which raises the question of who writes the code, who provides the services, how they are actually implemented, what does it mean to have access if applications have not been prepared for places that need them, what is the difference of physical and software access: they are obviously closely intertwined and not even clearly able to be delineated.

A fourth point that I think we need to discuss is all of the downsides, because everything I have mentioned is all of the upsides, but the downsides of this category of technology are as big, potentially, as the upsides, in some ways like all technology we have learned throughout history that every technology has its positive side and every technology has its negative side and we are just beginning to understand some of the negatives.

The US elections may have well been determined by cybercrimes. This is not a myth or propaganda, it is quite clear that there was very deep meddling by Russia, in some way, in very sophisticated ways in the campaign. The margin of victory of President Trump was so small that it is absolutely plausible that this tipped the election. That is rather shocking actually. The US defences proved to be pitiful, useless actually, in a lot of ways. The incumbent President did not know what to do, he did not want to interfere, he said very little and the outcomes were no doubt in some measure swayed.

Identity theft is completely pervasive, now with the millions and millions of cases of identity theft and possibly hundreds of millions of invasions in the United States or in Yahoo accounts being breached. There is a whole dark Internet which I had not really appreciated until reading an article on the way over, on the plane last night, that by some estimates dark Internet is as high a proportion of the Internet as dark matter and dark energy are of the universe. In other words, there could be 80 or 90% of the material online that is not picked up, for example, in a Google search because I guess HTML and other indicators are turned off, and therefore there is a whole pervasive and often criminal side that is quite massive.

There is a profound question of individual privacy, in every way, both in use of big data and in the way that Google, Amazon and Facebook and major portals use all of our information and know far more about us than we know about ourselves. And you find that every few weeks, when your credit card company calls and asks you “Did you really make such and such purchase?” and you say, “No, no I did not” and they say, “Yeah we did not think so”, well, they know a lot abut your purchase habits and so all of this is in routines and information that we, and I, certainly do not understand at all, what is really being pulled and how it is being used; but it is pretty deep information about me that is widely available, that I gave approval when I clicked “I agree”, and I do not know about you but I never read any text that went along with “I agree and if I didn't agree I would not have any idea what to do anyway”.

Then there is the question of government surveillance, which is obviously pervasive and very dangerous, there is the question of monopoly of key services, we have a few giants that are mega rich, mega holding our data, out of control and the gentleman to my right knows what they are doing, I do not know what they are doing and very few people understand what they are doing.

There is the downside of automation, which is a whole other subject, which is really going to change the labour market decisively. I just mentioned that that is not the same issue as ours, but it actually is related and again I was just reading a news story on the ride in from the airport where now there are, in e-commerce applications, a business in China is now running 40 stores, all automated stores, with four employees online. So you go into the shop, there is no one there, everything is barcoded, everything is scanned, everything is e-payments and if you have any questions you have a video contact with somebody that can help you and there are four people running 40 shops right now. And the retail sector is one of the biggest employment sectors in the world; it is about to be profoundly transformed. There is the question, again much debated, of super intelligence and robotics that gets out of control and cyber warfare, or drones, and automated systems and so forth. So I mention all of this because it would be hard to talk about human rights in this sector without talking about the risks and acknowledging them and having the question of protection.

Then, finally, let me mention what would such a doctrine imply, because rights require remedies and they require obligations to be fulfilled, so whose obligations are we speaking about and how would those rights be realized over time? Part of it is national policies, questions of coverage, and yesterday I was in a political meeting in the United States of state legislators from across the US and a state legislator from Wisconsin raised her hand and said “Why do we not have a right to Internet here? I have rural constituents that are no longer part of our economic process” and this was the United States, so it both shows the merit but it also asked the question who is responsible.

I was not sure that I agreed with Nicholas Negroponte’s comment about auctioning spectrum, in one major way, which is that those who have access to spectrum, of course it may be the flipside of what you are saying, tend to make a lot of money on their access to spectrum and the auction is a way to capture that income and it could be used for access so you can create a public access fund by auctioning spectrum and then dedicating it to making sure that the marginal parts of the society are well represented. I think your model is that spectrum should only be used for not-for-profit purposes, but it seems like a hard stretch actually. And rather than only going that way, capturing the value of the public ownership of spectrum through public auction probably makes some sense. But there are, in almost all countries, universal services and access funds, in which telecoms pay a small percentage, maybe 1% and that is supposed to go towards a pool for universal access. Maybe we should revisit the discussion about the efficacy, size of payments and usefulness of those funds. And then, on the international side, there are obviously many questions that arise.

What is the responsibility of the major IT companies? We have giants, like Apple, Amazon, Google, Alibaba, Microsoft, Facebook, what responsibilities do they have to this? I once went to Facebook and said “You should do a lot more in education”. They said “No, we are a business, if you are interested go to Washington”. And I said to them “I will go to Washington when you pay your taxes”. And then they threw me out of the office. But this is a real question about what is responsibility. It is interesting; Apple has been donned with a payment of 13 billion euros to Ireland that the EU is requiring that Ireland collect from Apple. Ireland says, “We do not want this, we are a tax haven, and we do not want to collect from Apple”. The Commission is saying, “You have to collect from Apple”. One idea is that we go from this meeting to the Government of Ireland and say, “Please collect and put the 13 billion into a fund for universal access”, because maybe that way they can keep their tax haven and we can have access too. So if there is creativity in how the funding actually is used, I think we can make some headway. On the organisational side, my own instinct would be, if we able to muster support for this proposal, to make the ITU be responsible for this. We have an international organisation; it is loosely charged with this, it basically is right now charged with telecommunications. This is the telecommunications of the 21st century: rather than having an internecine war with the UN, where you always lose with the UN – because incumbent organisations always win – rather, task an existing organisation with the charge of helping to oversee and enforce a new human right.

The last point I would make is, if we go forward, I think it would be very much worth having a discussion with the President of the General Assembly, which I would be happy to do. I had been asked by him during his one-year tenure to serve also on his advisory committee and I will meet with him in mid-October and it is an issue that I could raise with him. Thank you.