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Promoting an adaptive, resilient and collaborative regulatory system is key to “building back better" and advancing digital transformation for all, according to participants at the recent ITU's 20thedition of the Global Symposium for Regulators(GSR-20). The symposium was held virtually from 1 to 3 September.

Regulatory authorities that gathered at GSR-20 agree that in the wake of COVID-19 digital regulation can boost the readiness of digital markets to face unexpected events and emergencies and deliver up to the expectations despite the odds. Accordingly, they have adopted GSR-20 Best Practice Guidelines: The gold standard for regulation to respond to the challenges of digital transformation in the aftermath of global crises and beyond.

"This crisis has demonstrated that information and communication technology is a unifying thread that runs through all aspects of our societies and economies, and our approach to ICT investments must recognize and embrace this reality," said ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao. "At stake is the ability of regulators and policy-makers everywhere to unlock investment to support growth, jobs and innovation – but also to save lives and demonstrate their value added in this increasingly connected world."

National economies and citizens have been relying increasingly on digital infrastructure during COVID-19. The current crisis and the probability of new global emergencies means that regulators will need to switch to regulatory frameworks that are adaptive, collaborative, outcomes-based and technology neutral.

The GSR-20 Best Practice Guidelines emphasize the need for coordination among all stakeholders, integrating sustainability into regulatory frameworks, maximizing benefits while reducing harms of digital technologies, striving for transparency and trust throughout the regulatory process, an evidence-based approach, and frequent revision of regulatory frameworks to ensure they remain fit for purpose.

The GSR-20 Best Practice Guidelines cast a framework for progressive regulatory patterns and policy while charting the way ahead for industry and regulators. We have identified concrete steps to pursue regulatory reform towards achieving thriving, inclusive digital markets," said GSR-20 Chair Dan Sjöblom.

"As the pace of digital transformation accelerates, developing an effective regulatory approach is more vital than ever. In the face of new global emergencies, governments and regulators need to consider holistic, cross-sectoral, and, to the extent possible, multi-national regulatory and policy approaches."

The GSR-20 Best Practice Guidelines propose the following reforms:

Agile framework for competition in digital markets: Regulators should support innovation and new business and licensing models that facilitate affordable access to and investment in health, enterprise, and educational services on digital platforms.

Codes of conduct (voluntary or enforceable): Regulators should guide digital platforms and support them throughout the process of creating codes, their implementation and enforcement in important areas, such as online content moderation on digital platforms, addressing misinformation and online news quality, and child online protection. Media and digital literacy and awareness efforts should likewise be central to navigating the challenges around services that are enabled by the digital transformation.

Upgrading national emergency plans: Creation and implementation of effective emergency plans enables better preparedness and decision-making during crises. Such plans are key to anticipating future unexpected events and their negative impacts and they should focus on both urban and rural areas through a multi-technology approach. Bilateral, regional and international cooperation should ensure business and public service continuity and underpin national recovery efforts.

Spectrum reform: Spectrum managers need to be able to respond timely, making spectrum available for wireless applications when and where they are needed, and as easily as possible, giving spectrum users and innovators flexibility to provide services that will deliver the greatest benefits. Ensuring that sufficient unlicensed spectrum is available drives innovation and investment in a range of technologies that can complement and support networks and expand broadband access at low cost. Spectrum reform should also be focused on ensuring that access to broadband service is provided affordably to those areas and populations that have been traditionally unserved or underserved.

The regulators acknowledged that there is no single, comprehensive blueprint for best practice and that regulatory patterns for the connected digital economy will be rooted in local circumstances while addressing regional and global challenges, especially now while the world is striving to build back better with digital technologies across the board.

"In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, the work of regulators and policy-makers is critical," said Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director of ITU's Telecommunication Development Bureau. "Our ICT policy and regulatory frameworks will need to be fit-for-purpose. They will need to be up-to-date, flexible, incentive-based and market-driven to support digital transformation across sectors, and across geographical regions. In short, they will need to leverage the power of digital platforms and infrastructures to build the resilience we need to protect us against future global emergencies."

The GSR-20 symposium is part of a programme that kicked off on 30 June 2020 with a leadership debate "Resilient and secure digital connectivity for all: COVID-19 Recovery and lessons learned for better preparedness and response". The June event was followed by Regional Regulatory Roundtable Discussions for the Europe, CIS, Arab States, Africa and Asia-Pacific regions.

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