Originally published on Forbes
The United Nations commemorated its 75th anniversary in a virtual summit this September, in the midst of what it called “a time of great disruption for the world.” In the summit, world leaders debated pressing issues and reinforced their commitment to the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), designed to address global challenges including health, poverty, climate change, inequality, peace and justice by 2030.
Volkan Bozkir, President of the UN General Assembly, called for solidarity among members, particularly in the context of the pandemic: “No other platform in the international calendar has this convening power. No other Organization can bring so many global leaders together. No other body has the potential to address global challenges, like this United Nations.”
I completely agree. The SDGs represent the most urgent problems facing our planet, and they require collective action on a global scale. But I noticed that there is a critical issue missing from the UN’s agenda: not one of the Sustainable Development Goals addresses our digital lives.
One of my favorite sayings — we don’t go online, we live online — rings especially true in 2020. Before the pandemic, we spent hours a day on our devices; screen time has increased even more now that many of our daily activities have moved into a virtual setting.
Why then is this digital reality left out of the UN’s goals? I don’t believe it’s possible to build a more just and livable planet without an 18th goal that focuses on creating a safe and meaningful digital life.
So what exactly does a safe, meaningful digital life look like, and how can we approach it on a global level? The first step is acknowledging that we spend a lot of our time connected online.
Of the world’s population of 7.81 billion people, 4.66 billion are internet users (nearly 60%) and 4.14 billion use social media each month (a number that has increased by more than 12% in the past 12 months). The typical user spends around 15% of their waking hours on social platforms.
We are entangled with the companies that allow us to work, play, learn, shop and communicate virtually. What would we do if we could no longer collaborate with coworkers on Microsoft, Slack or Zoom, or chat with loved ones on Facebook or FaceTime, or get necessary information and products on Google or Amazon? How would we fill our many hours at home without Netflix, YouTube and other streaming entertainment platforms? It’s hard to differentiate between our digital lives and our “real” lives because they are one and the same.
The recent documentary, The Social Dilemma, sounds the alarm about the dangers of this entanglement. It brings up valid questions about how companies are manipulating and monetizing our personal data and what we should do to stop abuses. But the fact remains that these technology companies are important in our lives, and they’re not going away any time soon. Going backward isn’t an option; wishing to disentangle ourselves from tech companies is about as useful as wanting to return to a time before cars or electricity. We can wring our hands and worry about their ubiquity — or we can look at the issue from another angle.
We have already decided to share our lives with these companies, and we continue to do so because we see more benefits than drawbacks. Let’s have a discussion about how they can use their powerful data and influence to help solve the other 17 SDGs.
The internet has erased boundaries and blurred borders. When we live online, we can access the same information and tools whether we are in Cape Town, Singapore or Chicago, yet we don’t have any established global laws for data privacy.
Regional governments have been rolling out new regulations, like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the EU, the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) in Canada and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), but this is an international issue that requires international cooperation.
An 18th Sustainable Development Goal would make it mutually beneficial for companies and governments to join forces. Companies could deepen their entanglement with users and explore new technological developments, while committing to responsible privacy and security standards that protect personal data from misuse.
I believe it’s in the best interests of tech companies to get behind an 18th goal. People are already talking about The Social Dilemma and the risks of intrusive technology. Companies can spend time defending themselves or arguing against their detractors, or they can take control of the discussion and pledge to uphold standards of a safe and meaningful digital life:
• Safe: Not operating a digital environment polluted by “smart” advertising, not selling data without permission to third parties, not manipulating citizens by spreading misinformation
• Meaningful: Continuing to democratize information and communication and open up professional, personal and educational opportunities
We live on one planet, and we need to give the same consideration to our digital existence as we do to our physical world. If companies dedicate a fraction of their vast resources to developing an 18th Sustainable Development Goal, they can be part of a solution that benefits everyone.
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