Human Rights in the Digital Sphere

Strasbourg 18 October 2021
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(As delivered)



Firstly, let me congratulate Japan and the United States on reaching 25 years as Observer States at the Council of Europe –

The success of this relationship comes down to the shared values on which it is built:

Human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

And while those principles do not change, the context in which they are applied is ever evolving.

The topic of this Symposium is a case in point.

It is timely, important and well chosen by you, Ambassador, and you, Consul General.

Digital technology is evolving at an amazing speed.

Ensuring that it respects human rights is no easy matter.

But for the Council of Europe, this is the very purpose of our work.

The European Convention on Human Rights applies to all aspects of life on our continent – online and offline.

So, as technology advances, so must our efforts to keep pace with it, and to ensure that it harnesses our common standards, rather than undermining them.

It is for this reason that the Secretary General has included artificial intelligence and the broader impact of digital transformation, and the use of new technologies, as a priority for action in the Council of Europe’s new Strategic Framework.

In each of the three issues that you will discuss today, the Council of Europe has a record of action, and the determination to do more.

You are right to consider how freedom of information and content moderation should coexist online.

Because the spread of hate speech, manipulation and disinformation is itself undermining this fundamental right.

And there is a balance to be struck, not least in today’s complex media and news environment.

We have already issued a guidance note to member states and other stakeholders on content moderation.

And we are now finalising instruments that will tackle of impact of digital technology on key areas.

These include the principles for governing media and communication –

Electoral communication and media coverage of election campaigns –

And freedom of expression as a whole.

On human rights and artificial intelligence, governments and international actors have encouraged both self-regulation and laws to ensure that ethical principles apply to AI.

But there is no common set of overriding principles on this –

No oversight or supervisory mechanism at the European level.

So, we must take steps to address this.

We are currently examining the feasibility and potential elements of a legal framework for the development, design and application of artificial intelligence based on our human rights, democracy and rule of law standards.

This approach was endorsed by our member states at our Hamburg Ministerial Session in May.

Ministers asked for the development of a legal framework that might have two components –

First, a cross-cutting, binding legal instrument, based on general common principles, and on which negotiations should start next year –

Secondly the possibility of other binding or non-binding instruments designed to tackle the challenges posed by AI in specific sectors.

As regards specific sectors, work is already underway with regard to autonomous vehicles, education, justice and more.

Lastly, you are right also to consider the complex issues of cyber vulnerability in our daily lives.

Cybercrime is now deeply rooted, growing and highly adaptable.

We have seen this very clearly during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, where scams, deception and counterfeiting have accelerated at a time when businesses and individuals have been particularly vulnerable.

Our Budapest Convention on Cybercrime is particularly important here.

It remains the gold standard in its field.

It is open to membership from outside the Council of Europe –

And it benefits from having both Japan and the United States as parties.

Moving forward, next month we expect that our Committee of Ministers will adopt the Second Additional Protocol to the Budapest Convention.

This is a milestone, and this update will enable enhanced co-operation and the disclosure of electronic evidence.

And this, in turn, will allow more effective investigations so that the rule of law reaches deeper into cyberspace than ever before.

Dear friends, I may sound a little pessimistic, but the digital sphere will only become ever more complex.

So, we need to act in an effective and efficient manner that will make it a safer space in which individuals’ rights are upheld.

There is no doubt, that our Organisation benefits from its strong relationship with Japan, the United States and other observer states.

This issue – and this seminar – are a testament to that.

I very much look forward to hearing the thoughts and ideas that emerge from this exchange.

They can only draw us closer and reinforce our common approach, so we become even more aware and determined in fulfilling the objectives we have set.


Thank you for your attention.

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