Retour The Digital Economy and Human Rights

Brussels , 

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The strength of the internet lies in its open and free nature. This is the source of its immense power for positive change.

Socially: transforming the way people connect.

Politically: creating an entirely new means of spreading information, empowering the voiceless, and holding the powerful to account.

Intellectually: we have never seen such a space for the free-flow of ideas, and therefore innovation.

And, of course, economically: there is no knowledge economy without the internet. According to one study I read recently, if developing economies had the same access as developed ones it could generate up to 140 million new jobs.

And yet I bet that, as you wander around listening to today’s debates, you will hear as much about what shouldn’t happen online as what should.

Because the internet – like all technology – has a darker side, too.

It is exploited by criminals, terrorists, paedophiles; by states who wish to spy on their citizens; by nasty individuals who hide behind the cloak of anonymity it provides.

So I wish to pose a question today:

How do we protect all that is good about the Internet while containing all that is bad?

I believe we must.

The internet relies on trust.

All of the benefits I have described depend on citizens, entrepreneurs and companies believing that it is a safe space, where their interests, their privacy, their children, and so on, are protected.

And while I don’t believe that the internet will ever go into reverse: people will never stop using it, I do believe that if trust weakens, people will use it in more guarded ways than they otherwise would, diminishing its potential for good – for democracy, for social evolution, and for economic growth.

The answer to misuse of the net is not, of course, heavy-handed regulation. This would kill the Internet.

But, equally, a free internet is not a free-for-all.

An open Internet does not mean completely open to abuse.

And I believe that there are two key planks to a trusted internet that will continue to command people’s confidence.

The first is standards.

There have to be some rules for what kind of behaviour is and isn’t permissible online.

We are inching towards a system of global governance, incrementally and piece by piece, but we are a long way from harmonization.

Different countries, including in Europe, employ different approaches, meaning that, currently, how free and open your internet is depends on where you live.

And these imbalances are something the Council of Europe is trying to correct.

We are Europe’s largest intergovernmental organisation, with 47 member states spanning from Ireland across to the Russian Federation and Turkey, and including all EU 28.

We are the guardian of the European Convention on Human Rights.

And we have a number of legally-binding treaties to protect human rights and the rule of law online.

This includes to protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation, including grooming;

To combat cybercrime;

To protect personal data;

We are in the process of negotiating clearer rules for criminal justice access to electronic evidence on cloud servers.

And we have a series of recommendations on, for example, e-democracy.

But there are gaps, and they need to be filled.

One relates to freedom of expression: we don’t currently have one clear set of international standards on what governments should do when faced with illegal material.

We all agree that it is their duty to take down or block websites which aid terrorism, for example, or contain indecent images of children.

But we also have to ensure that the power to remove content is not misused.

I recently commissioned a study into what currently happens in our 47 member states and the picture is very worrying indeed.

Censorship is a real problem.

Some governments are delegating the responsibility for filtering and blocking content to administrative authorities, which can interpret it too widely.

Some have used counter terror laws to silence their opponents.

Some governments are leaving the decision about what to filter and block almost entirely to private companies, who are not always best placed to judge the difference between free speech – which may be offensive, but is still a person’s right, and hate speech, which includes inciting others to violence and may be a crime. For this reason, I was pleased to see that the European Commission’s new Code of Conduct with industry to remove hate speech contains an explicit reference to the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, whose case law is indispensable in this regard.

This patchwork of responses – some of them contrary to fundamental freedoms – is not good for trust.

So the Council of Europe is now going to create one set of common standards to empower European governments to tackle illegal content, while safeguarding free speech.

And, as with all these things, its impact will depend on political will – so urge your governments to give this their full support. 

Second, in addition to the right rules, we need responsibility.

And here I want to make a direct appeal to industry: more than anyone, the tech companies and businesses operating online depend on the trust of internet users.

It is in their clear self-interest to maintain it.

And, if they do not, they must beware the reactionary and heavy hand of state interference, if and when, in the future things, go wrong.

Regulating the Internet is very much like regulating the press: outside of authoritarian or anti-democratic regimes, no one wants to see governments or even independent bodies impose themselves too heavily.

The best way to stop this is if private actors are seen to act in the public good.   

And on that point, before I finish, there is one specific issue I would like to highlight, relating to child abuse online.

At the Council of Europe we have a body called the Lanzarote Committee, whose job it is to evaluate the degree to which member states are meeting their obligations, as set out in our Lanzarote Convention, which criminalises child sexual abuse and exploitation.

One issue they are looking at is the persistence of website addresses which openly refer to child abuse material.

In its annual report the Internet Watch Foundation says that last year it found new gTLDs being used to share child sex abuse imagery for the first time.

By new gTLDs I mean the thousands of new domain names which have been created in recent years, alongside traditional domains, like .com.

According to the IWF, many appeared to have been registered specifically for the purpose of sharing images of abuse.

Preventing the abuse itself is, of course, the first priority.

But the fact that these criminals are able to parade their vile acts so shamelessly is unacceptable.

An important part of taking a zero-tolerance to child abuse is saying: no, you cannot blatantly advertise your horrific crimes.   

In some places we see domain name registries taking an assertive approach to screening and identifying domain names which signal or encourage these offences, informing law enforcement and having them suspended or de-registered, including with the help of NGOs.

I know that ICANN has also taken steps in this direction in recent years. This morning I spoke to their CEO, Goran Marby, about what more can be done.

I think it will send an important signal about the kind of place we want the internet to be if more public authorities and bodies involved in the registration process now take a clear and united stance.

With that, I’ll finish.

I am lucky to share the floor today with two speakers who agree with me that the Internet should remain open and free.

The question for all of us is how we protect the best bits while mitigating the worst.

How do we establish the rules and responsibility needed to maintain trust?

Thank you.