Ceremonial Signature: Exchange of Letters between the Council of Europe and Internet Companies and Associations

Strasbourg , 

Ladies and gentlemen,

It gives me great pleasure to welcome you to the Council of Europe to mark a new era in co-operation between this Organisation, comprising our 47 member states’ governments, and some of the world’s largest and most powerful internet companies and their representatives’ associations.

This is a unique moment in our history.

It is unique because it is the first time the Council of Europe is also giving a formal, institutional role to the private sector, one which is open-ended allowing other companies and representative associations to join in the future. 

The Council of Europe is mandated to safeguard the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all citizens, as defined in the European Convention on Human Rights.

That mandate applies online as well as offline.

At the same time, internet companies are changing our everyday lives: our access to information; the ways in which we communicate; and our means of assembly and association.

These companies have attained unprecedented influence: a story that is borne out in industry statistics:

  • Apple sold 41.026 million iPhones in the third quarter of 2017;
  • Facebook has more than 2 billion monthly active Facebook users, of which around 300 million in Europe;
  • Google is the world’s most visited website. Over 5.5 billion Google searches are made every day;
  • Microsoft has more than 1 billion Windows-powered PCs in use in the world and 36% Operating System Market Share Worldwide;
  • Internet access is provided by European telecommunication providers, such as Deutsche Telekom, Orange and Telefonica;
  • Kaspersky Lab offers services which protect safety, security and privacy online;
  • Other important companies are represented by associations of which some are represented here today, namely, European Digital SME Alliance, Global Network Initiative (GNI), and GSM Alliance.

But with this unprecedented influence also come unprecedented responsibilities.

In many of our member and observer states there is a strong debate as to whether, and to what extent, governments should regulate these responsibilities by setting legally binding standards.

Recent German legislation and the US Senate hearings last week are but two obvious examples.

Companies demonstrate their own standards – and ethics through their Corporate Social Responsibility policies.

A publicly shared commitment to the Council of Europe’s core values – democracy, human rights and the rule of law  sends a very strong signal.

This commitment means dialogue between us of course, but it requires clear and concrete action too.

Together, we must take steps to prevent the abuse of the internet, in particular the use of social media by terrorists to spread extremism and radicalisation.

And we must reduce uncertainty and resolve inconsistencies in legislative frameworks across borders in order to fight crime online and improve direct co-operation between law enforcement agencies and internet service providers – in particular with regard to accessing electronic evidence

It is also essential to balance the sometimes competing requirements to support freedom of expression and safeguard personal data while also clamping down on hate, intimidation and the incitement to violence.

And we must of course improve our capacity to protect children from sexual exploitation and sexual abuse online ; and to stop online abuse, including revenge porn, cyber stalking and sexual harassment, which disproportionately affect women.

The challenges posed by the internet for democracy are also increasingly evident.

Social media and big data are changing fundamentally the way in which the democratic game is played.

Every year our World Forum for Democracy discusses this issue.

This year is no exception.

A growing body of evidence highlights the tension between the internet’s role in empowering grassroots activists, and the capacity of big data, manipulation and fake news – not least in election campaigns – to skew debate that is not subject to the same ethical and professional standards as legacy media.

This is not good enough.

Online democracy must not be weaker democracy.

In the years to come, we must overcome digital divides and ensure access for all, including our most vulnerable groups, so that no-one is left behind.

Today’s exchange of letters acknowledges our shared responsibility to deliver that vision and address the challenges ahead, including

  • the human rights implications of algorithms and their regulatory implications;
  • the impact of artificial intelligence on people’s lives
  • and the need for education and literacy to counter fake news, stereotyping and hate speech online

The best way to meet these challenges is for our governments to work closely together, and to include civil society as well as the private sector in the process.

Thank you.