Digital diplomacy

No nation is a digital island. Digital is borderless, so how can it be governed?

International coordination presents an opportunity for developing countries to exercise their own voices and develop a governance model that works for them.

The Pathways Commission’s new paper – Digital diplomacy: technology governance for developing countries – highlights that international cooperation is key to making the governance of digital technologies work for developing countries.

Governance of the digital economy can have a massive impact on the ways that technologies can be used. Developing countries have struggled to catch up with the pace of change, and in their attempts to govern technology they have used models exported from the EU and the US, which are often inappropriate for local contexts. Surprisingly little attention is paid to how resource-constrained countries should approach digital regulation – either within their own countries or as an increasingly pressing transnational issue.

The Pathways Commission consulted developing country policymakers, businesses, academics and civil society to identify their key priorities for the international coordination of digital governance. Five principles emerged repeatedly which could guide efforts to make sure that cross-border governance of digital technologies works for developing countries.


The results of our consultation: what are developing countries' key technology policy priorities?

Developing countries should be able to tax technology companies which offer goods and services to their residents.

Developing countries need support from the international community to combat cybercrime and improve cybersecurity. 

Frameworks to protect privacy and personal data should conform with developing countries' policy priorities. 

The design and enforcement of competition laws need to be fit for the digital age. 

Developing countries’ interests must be considered in intellectual property rules. 

Data often has incredible potential beyond its initial purpose, but the tools, standards and regulations that would enable data sharing are largely absent. 

Key principles for a cooperative digital world


Principle 1Foster digital cooperation: creating incentives for countries to work together. Big global institutions are unlikely to solve the problems of digitalisation for developing countries. Developing countries should chart their own path towards international cooperation to shape cross-border regulation of technology. This could start with regional coalitions or agreements between non-regional groups of countries with shared values and goals. It may also be easier to start with less contentious topics, such as online harms, and then evolve to address more issues, such as taxation.

Principle 2Tailor technology governance for developing countries: ensuring better implementation in a wider range of national contexts. Global rules and standards are often not a good fit for developing countries, which have capacity constraints and policy goals which often differ from those of developed nations. Any set of rules which has an impact outside the borders of a single country should consider a tiered approach, starting with a minimum-implementable baseline that any country could (reasonably) be expected to meet in order to engage with cross-border digital trade.

Principle 3Unlock data for inclusive development: using data to improve people's lives. Much of the world’s information is locked away in inaccessible databases and only used for a slim fraction of its possible uses. Data governance rules should give people the ability to access their personal data, and should provide policymakers with the tools to maximise the social and economic value of data. This should be accompanied by adequate levels of protection to prevent abuse of this data (eg unauthorised mass surveillance).


Principle 4Be part of something bigger: harmonising cross-border digital trade. The digital economy is increasingly dependent on data being transferred across locations, systems, and devices. Digital integration can generate immense value for countries and supercharge innovation. Countries could work together to support cross-border digital trade that is as frictionless as possible. Of course, this will require some level of shared standards and interoperable systems – ensuring that digital goods meet consistent requirements and standards.

Principle 5Protect against cyber harms: data protection, transparency, and accountability. People, governments, and businesses need to feel safe to invest and participate in the integrated digital market. This will require a consistent regulatory framework that gives users trust and confidence in service providers, improves legal certainty, and fosters investment. Transparency and accountability mechanisms could improve the reliability of automated decisions and help to prevent algorithmic discrimination.