Internet Freedom Conference - The role and responsibilities of internet intermediaries

Vienna, 13 October 2017


Your Excellencies, Ambassadors, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,

It is just over one year ago that many of us came together in Strasbourg. Here we are again at an event organised jointly by the OSCE and the Council of Europe to discuss internet freedom. Now why is that topic so important to bring so many busy people, representatives of governments and EU institutions, UNESCO, leading Universities, major internet companies and many of the key NGOs, into one room?

What does the internet represent today?  Let me give you just a few figures: one minute today represents 156 million e-mails; 16 million text messages, 452,000 Tweets, 3,5 million Google search queries and 4.1million YouTube videos being viewed. Over 750.000 Euros are spent online by all of us in one minute.

This is one reason why today’ s conference provides for debate on a highly topical issue. Another one is that the internet today also represents serious challenges: hate messages and other abusive forms of expression online, child sexual abuse material, cybercrime, and the use of the internet for terrorist purposes.

We want to maintain and secure internet freedom, we must do so in line with the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights, but we also must protect our children, we also must protect lives, and we must ensure that the law is abided by.

To do that, and this is the final reason, why we all come together regularly to discuss and debate, we need each other. We need a multi-stakeholder approach, where all sides recognize their specific obligations, duties and responsibilities, and where all sides co-operate.

I want to name two recent and very concrete initiatives of the Council of Europe in order to enhance this multi-stakeholder approach.

1. Last week, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe approved a formal exchange of letters between the Secretary General and high representatives of major internet and telecommunications companies, including Microsoft, Google, Apple, Telefonica, Deutsche Telecom as well as Associations of smaller European ISPs. After several rounds of meetings with our partners, we are now ready to enter the next level: to discuss concrete areas of co-operation in the fields of combatting and preventing cybercrime; of promoting save transmission, often trans-border transmission, of electronic evidence; the enhancement of compliance with data protection safeguards, the rights-conform enforcement of content moderation policies, and more. We all know that there will be more. Because technological developments do not stop here.

The Council of Europe sub-Committee on internet intermediaries has just finalised some work on the human rights dimensions of automated data processing techniques and algorithms. The Consultative Committee on the Council of Europe Convention for the Protection of Individuals with regard to Automatic Processing of Personal Data has developed guidelines on Big Data and the human rights and societal challenges that come with that. Finally – we are seeing the advancement of new and self-aware forms of artificial intelligence, that may eventually call for altogether new normative frameworks.

In all these areas, we believe that this exchange of letters will provide internet companies with an unprecedented opportunity to sit side-by-side with governments and to address today`s challenges through joint action, which as a result, can be more effective.


2.  The second issue I want to mention is the draft recommendation of the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers on the roles and responsibilities of internet intermediaries. This title will sound familiar to all of you!

I am pleased to say that the MSI-NET, the Council of Europe sub-committee of experts on internet intermediaries, a few of whom we will have the privilege of listening to today, has just these passed weeks been finalising its proposed text. As we will soon hear more details about the recommendation, I will now only mention why it is important for a functioning and effective multi-stakeholder approach.

The Council of Europe, the OSCE, UN and EU institutions have over the years developed a rich body of international human rights standards to address the task of shaping a rule of law-based policy for the relationship between state authorities and intermediaries and their respective human rights obligations and responsibilities.

Yet, implementation of these standards remains problematic. The Council of Europe closely follows initiatives by other actors in exploring workable solutions for the challenges on the internet and the potential of internet intermediaries’ engagement. The European Commission has just presented guidelines and principles for online platforms to increase the proactive prevention, detection and removal of illegal content inciting hatred, violence and terrorism online. There are strong calls in some countries for national legislation to be adopted. The German Network Enforcement Act entered into force on 1 October. The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, to whom I look forward to listening to in a few moments, has appealed to the German authorities to take steps to ensure the careful implementation of the law, to evaluate its effects and to be ready to amend it in parliament, if necessary.

The Council of Europe highly values the contribution of the OSCE in protecting and promoting freedom of expression and media freedom, and commends their vigilance in the constantly fluctuating online environment. Global challenges today require prompt and firm responses, but should under no circumstances lead us to hasty decisions that can compromise human rights, the rule of law and democratic values.

In today`s fast-changing environment, where new forms of co-operation and engagement are being tested, the draft recommendation spells out in some detail, what states should do and what intermediaries should do. There are certain functions that are the ultimate prerogative of the state. These can and shall not be transferred to private sector entities – even if they are closer to the illegal activity that must be stopped. Yes, internet companies do have a role to play in the removal, the fast removal, of illegal content. But, such involvement must be based on clear, foreseeable and proportionate rules and effective complaints mechanisms must be in place.

The Council of Europe has repeatedly encouraged co-regulatory approaches to the management of online content. The draft recommendation attempts to provide specific guidance on how such co-regulatory approaches can work. Today we will have the opportunity to debate this proposal as well as other approaches, and to listen to others` perspectives and views. While we may not get to a perfect solution today, I look very much forward to learning from you and wish us all an inspiring day.


 Director General 
Christos Giakoumopoulos

Mandate   Organigramme

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