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The Group of Twenty (G20) is the premier forum for global economic cooperation. It brings together major economies to develop coordinated socio-economic and health policy responses to global challenges. Each year, a different G20 member country assumes the presidency and hosts relevant ministerial and working group meetings, which are organized on the main theme of the forum. These meetings present an excellent opportunity to discuss and elaborate issues of international relevance, thus building consensus around specific shared deliverables.

This year, the rotating G20 presidency is assumed by Italy. Among several events and meetings under the Italian presidency, the G20 Ministerial Meeting on digitalization was held on August 5th, 2021 in Trieste. In this meeting, the G20 digital ministers discussed the necessity and utmost importance for digitalization to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, mainly in three aspects that include, economic, social and environmental. They recognized the role of the covid-19 crisis on the well-being and prosperity of societies across the globe, as well as on the global economy and employment. Digitalization was accepted to have the potential to build a resilient, strong and sustainable recovery, while dealing with disparities. The need to eradicate social exclusion due to a digital divide, was also a key topic of discussion.

Digital ministers and representatives of the G20 nations. Photo courtesy G20 Italian presidency

The G20 meeting focused on the essentiality to devise policies to develop an inclusive, open and fair digital space, available to all, and one which promotes businesses and individuals to succeed and thrive. The need now is to outline a policy that focuses on digital literacy that would help micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) to adapt better to digitalization and ensure better productivity for these firms. These policies can help with technology invention, deployment, and dissemination across the economy, as well as encourage more digitalization inputs in hardware, software, related intangibles, technological imperative, data-driven innovation, and research and development.

At the end of the Ministerial Meeting, a G20 Digital Ministers’ Declaration was adopted by the member states. This Declaration identifies the fundamental role that digital transformation can play in supporting governments to build stronger, more inclusive, and more sustainable societies. This declaration underscores the importance of a safe and resilient digital ecosystem for sustainable growth and economy.

In the following, a brief overview of the declaration with respect to digital security on global digital ecosystem is highlighted and analyzed to accelerate the digital transition and transformation in a secure, safe and resilient manner:

Digital Security

Digital technology can aid in the shift to sustainable development by assisting businesses in environmental protection, process improvement, energy optimization, and material management and reduction. In the digital economy, security is a critical enabler. Across their supply chain, businesses should improve the security of their architecture, digital operations, commodities, and services. Security issues, notably among MSMEs, might damage the product development and innovation process and hinder the uptake of emerging technologies. The public confidence in enterprises and tech can be harmed by data leaks, which are very common these days.

It has become imperative that the policy makers should incorporate digital security in the digital economy sector, by including how to deal with security risks in their risk management strategy. Policies should further steer clear of decisions that jeopardize an organization’s ability to safeguard information systems and protect confidential data.

Acts such as the usage of consensus-based guidelines and their implementation, risk-based ICT security conformity assessment, employee skills development, elevating security awareness among employees, and bolstering university-industry research cooperation, all add value to a reliable digital setting for both large and small businesses. Confidence building and safety is also crucial, along with raising awareness about public security risks that come with digitalization of society, economy and businesses.

Use of AI for MSMEs

The declaration reaffirms the use and development of AI by MSMEs. It suggests that innovative beginnings have the ability to build artificial intelligence solutions with innovative and novel concepts. MSMEs can benefit from AI in a variety of areas, including allowing innovation and increasing efficiency, but also transforming their business strategies and organizational processes and boosting the performance of preexisting structures. Exposure to AI technologies, infrastructure, and partnership between large and small businesses, as well as startups’ accessibility to novel public acquisition, could all be favored by any future policies.

The declaration underscores the importance of policies that promote the deployment of AI for the growth and success of MSMEs. It also highlights international cooperation through sharing of information, expertise and knowledge, as well as collaborative learning. Enhancing digital economy assessment, particularly in key indicators such as digital economy integration in macroeconomic figures, data evaluation, artificial intelligence, and digital inequalities, particularly gender gap and their root causes, are few of the prime concerns that need to be addressed.

Protection of digital consumers

For consumer’s awareness and for molding a model of sustainable economic development, the G20 ministers suggested increased transparency, by spreading awareness and educating consumers, including imparting digital literacy. Minimizing public harm and providing consumer protection in areas such as product quality and safety, confidentiality and personal data security, and unethical commercial activities, with a special focus on susceptible customers, the declaration recognized the importance of consumer protection research and involvement in the digital economy in effort to avoid negative consequences. International cooperation and exchange of knowledge and know-how was welcomed for mutual benefits and cooperation. Blockchain was upheld to be a suitable fit for enhancing transparency and liability for consumers.

Child protection and empowerment in the digital space

The ministerial summit acknowledged the importance of a digital environment for children, which would help further their learning opportunities and education. It also underscored the significance of providing opportunities for improving their innovation skills, defending their individual freedoms, giving sociocultural prospects, recreation, and participation in off-line activities. In addition, the ministers take note of the fact that this digital space is complex and it is evolving fast and holds the power and capacity to affect and shape the lives of children through the extensive experiences they have on the web, all the way to their adulthood, and might last a lifetime.

Children are a more vulnerable category of digital consumers than adults and might be more prone to risk of illegal content online, bullying, and other harmful contact and conduct risks, personal data protection and privacy the severity of which children seldom understand. For this, it was agreed to put the shared responsibility on service providers, as well as cooperation between governments, international organizations, large businesses, and especially the parents and counsellors of the children.

Innovation for smart cities and communities

The declaration recognized that as a large consumer of products and services, the public domain wields significant market influence and is well positioned to foster creativity based on safety, openness, robustness, transparency, social inclusion, productivity, technical impartiality, and interconnection. The public domain can thus offer a significant potential to support cities’ digital and long-term transformations by allowing for the digitalization of public infrastructure with great bargain solutions, improving residents’ living standard, and enabling MSMEs to partake in cyber economic activities. But since this can be a challenging and daunting task, the G20 meeting urged governments to build their capacity and reallocate their resources and energies to this cause, as well as international cooperation in this domain in sharing know-how, inclusiveness in participatory methods and framing suitable and efficient policies, that are sustainable in nature.

Connectivity and social inclusion

In a world where everything is moving to the digital space, from shopping to jobs and conducting business, transactions, education, health, cross cultural interactions etc., the need for bridging the digital gap was thoroughly addressed. They realized the significance of championing human-centered and an encompassing digital technology rollout and implementation, boosting connectivity and facilitating digital solutions for everyone, while also bearing in mind the added challenges posed by disadvantaged and poorly represented communities, such as individuals with special needs and the elderly, as well as underserved areas, including rural populations. This way consumers will enjoy more opportunities and equal access to the digital world.

Cross-border data flow

The ministers identified the advantages and risks of data dissemination with credibility and cross-border data streams, as well as the requirement to tackle these obstacles. It includes data protection and security, proprietary rights, and assurance, in order to comply with the pertinent relevant policy rules, such as by characterizing similarities between current methods and tools used to facilitate data free flow in goodwill.

Press Conference photo of Italian Minister Vittorio Colao. Courtesy: G20 Italian presidency

Future prospects and the way forward

In the digitalized world of today, all aspects of life have been engulfed and incorporated into the digital scenario and it has become increasingly important for businesses, including MSMEs, and even individuals to realize the opportunities that the digital space and the digital economy create for them. The G20 digital ministers meeting however also focused on the challenges that such a space can produce, along with the competition it generates due to the digital gap.

The need is for international cooperation in this aspect and for the G20 to first eliminate the digital gap that may exist within a state’s population and then work on bridging the gap between the populations. For example, the digital advancement of the EU and India might not be the same, with the latter having a huge population and not enjoying the same opportunities and digital literacy and access as the population elsewhere. But this is just one scenario.

Cooperation is also required between the G20 members and others who are not. The G20 can take the wheel and lead by example and provide assistance and technological imperative to others, to shape a digital world, one which provides equal access and opportunities to all. The need is to shape policies that are dynamic and sustainable and encompass all corners of the world.

Data security and cybersecurity should be the key focuses while formulating anything of the sort. This is important for the trust of the public in new technology and innovations and for them to feel secure and safe in a space that has been integrated into all domains of their life.

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Muqaddus Kundi conducts research in international relations domain. With a number of publications to her name, she harbors an interest in international affairs, global narratives and cyber warfare. She is an intern at Global Foundation for Cyber Studies and Research, USA.

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Muhammad Khurram Khan is the Editor-in-Chief of Cyber Insights Magazine. He is founder and CEO of Global Foundation for Cyber Studies and Research, USA. He is also a professor of Cybersecurity.

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