Opening of the 27th Lisbon Forum 2021

Lisbon 9 DECEMBER 2021
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As delivered by Bjørn Berge, Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe



Dear Friends,

For more than three decades now, the North-South Centre has brought Europe and its neighbours closer in dialogue, partnership and solidarity.

And the Lisbon Forum has established itself as an important annual event that addresses the key, contemporary issues that we face;

Gathering together academics, activists, policymakers and others to discuss and debate:

To share the ideas, knowledge and best practice that help us find a way forward.

This year is no exception.

The subject that you will address is one that is troubling people over the entire world.
We live at a time when the internet has opened up access to information and opinions as never before.

Where digital technology allows us to communicate in ways that were unimaginable until quite recently.

And where big data and artificial intelligence have the potential to help us live more informed and convenient lives.

This should really be a moment for celebration.

But instead, we are troubled.

The world wide web hosts a spectrum of views.

But, increasingly, it is used to push distortions, misinformation and lies.

Online opinion and social media are often means to bully, belittle and promote hate speech;

And algorithms and predictive technology are deciding what opinions we should hear, which advertisements we should view, and even which job vacancies we should see – and which we don’t.

So, we are far from all the good wishes and expectations that many hoped for with advent of the internet.

Rather, people have been left confused and suspicious, seeking solace among only those who share their own basic views.

What we hoped would bring us together, now threatens to push us apart – more than ever.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

This is technology that we have invented, so it is also ours to master.

We should not be too pessimistic or defeatist, but rather take the steps to help overcome the challenges we see and improve – democratise – if you like – our information societies.

I hope the Council of Europe can play its part in addressing this major challenge.

And in fact, we have already taken a range of proactive steps to address this matrix of information challenges.

Let me give you just a few examples.

In 2018, our Committee of Ministers adopted a ground-breaking recommendation for the governments of all of our 47 member states addressing the roles and responsibilities of internet intermediaries.

This takes a human-rights centred approach to the content displayed on the internet, and what must be done to protect and promote those standards in the interests of every internet user.

Yes, it makes clear the role that internet companies must play in upholding the law online.

But it also clarifies that states have a crucial role, regulating those companies’ activities and making sure that there are efficient supervisory and appeals processes to safeguard internet users.

Just this year, we took one more step with the adoption of legal and procedural frameworks for content moderation.

And we are right now at work on a range of new instruments that tackle the impact of digital technologies.

On freedom of expression, on the principles of media and communication governance, and on electoral communication and the coverage of election campaigns.

Taken together, these measures are clearly designed to ensure freedom of expression online.

But, equally bolster our defences against disinformation and the erosion of the values and standards we share.

At the same time, we must tackle the terrible impact of hate speech, amplified by social media, and often deploying lies and smears against its victims.

Whether we are talking about individuals or whole groups or communities targeted for abuse, these acts cause only misery.

They intimidate, misrepresent and incite prejudice and discrimination.

We have seen this even more clearly during the pandemic period, where research has shown spikes in online hate speech directed against specific racial groups and other minorities.

I believe, our No Hate Speech campaign has helped equip people across our continent to identify false narratives and to counter them with honest, open and inclusive alternatives.
But we must do more.

Therefore, we are now preparing a recommendation to governments on a comprehensive approach to addressing hate speech within a human rights framework.

This guidance has as its base the case law from the European Court of Human Rights and it also pays particular attention to the online environment.

Dear friends,

We must ensure that the development of modern technology reinforces our values, rather than undermining them.

It must create space for intercultural dialogue, diversity of views, and mutual understanding, rather than shutting them down through predictive technology.

On this, our 2020 recommendation on the human rights impacts of algorithms can help.

And so too will the binding and new transversal legal instrument on artificial intelligence on which our Ad Hoc Committee on AI is now working.

The marching orders were given at our Hamburg Ministerial Session in May, and negotiations on a text are due to start next year.

These and other measures are intended to help AI adhere to our human rights standards and affirm them as it grows.

That way, every individual will receive the rights and respect to which they are entitled.

They will not be stereotyped, discriminated against and fed information solely on the basis of an assessment made by a computer programme – or the companies that stand behind it.

Rather, they will be exposed to a marketplace of ideas, facts and information that hopefully enriches our knowledge and understanding of issues – and of one and another.

Alongside all of this, I should not forget that we have two key conventions that also play a critical role.

Convention 108 on the protection of individuals’ personal data;

And our Budapest Convention on Cybercrime.
They protect our personal details from misuse online and define online crime as well as providing the means to co-operate on preventing it and catching those who commit it.

By extending the rule of law into cyberspace, we have taken yet another decisive step.

But, the Council of Europe certainly does not have a monopoly on wisdom. 

Other international institutions and the internet companies themselves are among those actors that contribute.

Different regions, countries and individuals all have their own experiences and ideas about how to make progress –

On how we can ensure that information is shared, and help create the understanding in which unity and peace can put down deeper roots.

Let me in the end, congratulate the North-South Centre on its approach, and the Lisbon Forum for yet again turning its attention to one of the fundamental challenges of our times.

I wish you all a stimulating and successful Forum.

Thank you for your attention.