United Nations pledges to get everyone online… by 2030

Don't get too excited though

The United Nations has pledged to provide universal internet access by 2030.

Currently 3.2 billion people are online, but that represents just 43 per cent of the world's population.

In response, the UN last week launched a new "sustainable development" agenda with a goal of 2030.

It is due to be signed by all member states at the end of the month, and one of the pledges is to "strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020." (Note: the 2020 date appears to be a typo on the website; the entire agenda is focused on 2030.)

Fifteen years may seem like an extremely long time, given that most developed countries have had near-universal access for 10 years and are now arguing over broadband speeds. But never fear, because the UN won't meet the target; it never does.

What it does mean is that for the next 15 years there will be seemingly endless references to the 2030 goals in UN meetings and UN documents. That's what happened with the "millennium development goals," or MDGs, created in 2000 and due to be completed this year, in 2015. No UN discussion or document is complete without reference to the MDGs; the goals that is, not the actual progress toward them.

To be fair, they did have some success. The headline goals of "eradicating extreme poverty and hunger" and providing "universal primary education" saw reductions of roughly 50 per cent (although that still leaves over 800 million people in extreme poverty). Likewise, goals over child mortality, access to water, and so on.

Those also included a vague promise of expanding internet access, and in its official report [PDF] on how it did over the past 15 years, it notes that in 2000, just over six per cent of the world's population had internet access, whereas that figure now stands at 43 per cent. Quite how much the UN aided in that is not clear.

The 2030 agenda, on the other hand, has a lot of "universal" goals: universal literacy; universal access to quality education; universal access to affordable, reliable and sustainable energy; universal respect for human rights and human dignity; universal health coverage; universal access to sexual and reproductive health-care service; universal access to safe and affordable drinking water; and so on.

Alongside them, universal internet access starts to look doable.

Same old, same old

A decade ago now, the UN published its most significant report into how to reform itself. The report [PDF] was damning. It said that the UN was failing those most in need. Its development work was "fragmented and weak" and the organization itself was "inefficient and ineffective."

The report had two headline complaints: that the UN endlessly set goals at the cost of actually producing results; and that its programs were reliant on begging governments for money year after year, which made planning all but impossible.

Those exact tendencies have been again demonstrated in the key United Nations document covering the internet: the "WSIS+10" report that was finished up last week but has not yet been formally published. Although we have found a copy and published it here [PDF].

WSIS – the World Summit on the Information Society – took place in 2005 and was the UN's attempt to understand the internet. It also attempted to take over parts of the internet, leading to a ten-year battle that only really came to a close earlier this year.

The WSIS+10 document is an effort to see what has been achieved since that summit. And the answer appears to be: lots of talking about the same issues, but little or no actual progress.

The document references the "universal internet access by 2030" goal, but the bulk of the report simply lists the same problems and goals identified back in 2005: a digital divide; gender divide; noting how internet access and modern communications are very useful.

When it comes to how the internet is governed, the report simply reiterates the formal text that came out of the WSIS meeting a decade ago – including the endlessly argued-over term "enhanced cooperation" – and again extends the mandate of the discussion forum that was created in 2005 – the Internet Governance Forum (IGF).

As with 10 years ago, it argues for greater rollout of IPv6 and for internet exchange points (IXPs); it notes how important cybersecurity is. And it complains about a "lack of progress" with the one real thing that came out of the process: a "Digital Solidarity Fund," which was intended to finance the expansion of IT in developing countries (mostly Africa) but which, as usual, was reliant on voluntary contributions from governments, and therefore ended up with no money.

And so, having done little but talk about its goals rather than focus on achieving them, don't get too excited about that uninspiring 2030 universal internet access goal just yet. ®

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