Minister Rosenthal’s speech on respecting freedom of expression online

International Digital Economy Accords (IDEA) Meeting in Brussels.

Good morning ladies and gentlemen,

I am glad to be here with my Swedish counterpart Carl Bildt and Commissioner Neelie Kroes. Carl and Neelie, you have both been very active in shaping the digital agenda, and in calling for human rights to be respected online. Your leadership has set a good example, and today’s meeting is proof that your efforts are bearing fruit. There is a lot of creativity here, and many resources to be tapped. I welcome everyone’s presence. And I would like to thank the Aspen Institute for assembling a diverse group of major stakeholders, including IT companies and NGOs.

New communications media have the power to effect positive change. We have seen how great a role the internet and social media played in the recent uprisings in the Arab world. The images from Tahrir Square are still fresh in our minds. Amidst the crowds of young men and women, mobile phones and laptops were charging in improvised sockets, connecting the square to the world. That has been a most hopeful sign for hundreds of millions of people in every corner of the globe who have taken to the internet to enhance their lives and seek new opportunities.

Yet for many people, going online entails risks – as Esraa Abdel Fattah, also known as Egypt’s ‘Facebook Girl’, knows. Three years ago, she started the 6 April Youth Movement on Facebook. It became a popular political movement. Esraa was arrested by Egyptian security forces and spent two weeks in prison. During the recent revolts her security file surfaced, including three years of wiretaps and hacked emails. This, unfortunately, is the risk people face: some governments are prepared to track their own citizens and abuse the information they find for purposes of persecution. The footprints that courageous people like Esraa leave on the internet are exploited by their own governments. It troubles me greatly that, over the past few years, more and more countries have restricted their peoples’ online activities in one way or another. By monitoring their opinions. By applying censorship. Or by blocking entire websites and social networking tools to stop people from connecting and communicating. Many recent examples spring to mind.

The internet is a huge new arena where the right to freedom of opinion and expression still has to be defended. Don’t misunderstand me: respect for freedom of expression on the internet should be viewed in conjunction with making the internet secure. Cybercrime and violations of property and privacy rights are serious problems that need to be addressed. But a secure internet should not be established at the expense of freedom of expression. It should be clear that freedom of expression is the foundation of every free nation. This fundamental right can only be restricted in exceptional cases, as provided by law.

With due respect for other basic human rights, states are responsible for ensuring the free flow of information, on the internet as elsewhere. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrines this responsibility by providing that everyone has the ‘freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’. Governments should live up to this. And others can help.

The private sector definitely has an important role to play. Several IT companies, including major search engines, have shown how seriously they take their corporate social responsibility by limiting their dealings with countries that censor the internet. Some of them even proactively provide cyber dissidents with tools against censorship. One good example was Google and Twitter’s joint efforts during the Egyptian uprising. They provided voicemail to help Egyptians speak their minds when the internet was down, and converted these voicemails into tweets to let the outside world know what was going on. In my opinion, such spontaneous corporate initiatives to tackle internet censorship are exemplary.

It also helps when companies commit to joint Codes of Conduct like the Global Network Initiative that guarantee internet freedom. Major companies have subscribed to the GNI, and other companies and NGOs should strengthen it by following their example. Especially in Europe: European organisations, too, should send a clear message about the importance of fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression. Adhering to a global Code of Conduct makes a major contribution to combating censorship.

Together, the public and private sectors need to map a global response to threats to freedom of expression on the internet. Signing up to a Code of Conduct is part of a response. But we can do more.

For one thing, we should step up financial and political support for cyber dissidents. The Netherlands has experience in this area. Over the last few years, our Human Rights Fund has focused on projects promoting internet freedom around the world, particularly in countries with repressive regimes like Iran and Burma. This has taught us some valuable lessons. We would be glad to share best practices and discuss our project portfolio. Most importantly, we have learned that the primary role of governments is to enable bloggers, journalists and others with knowledge and tools to join forces to tackle censorship and monitoring. And it helps to sit down with companies, NGOs, experts and other stakeholders to identify who is helping whom and where, to better coordinate our efforts and to make them more effective.

Governments should also consider how they can create a level playing field by passing legislation that clearly lays down the standards that companies are held to. Some lawmakers in the US Congress are championing this idea. Their proposals – building on an earlier proposal for a Global Online Freedom Act – could serve as an inspiration on this side of the Atlantic as well. The Netherlands has argued before – and I repeat our call here today – for a discussion in the European Union of possible restrictions on exporting internet filter technology to repressive regimes. I am well aware of the complexity of such a measure. But I believe it is important for the EU to find a workable solution, to ensure that our technology does not help dictators in any way. Again, we should do this in close consultation with companies, NGOs, internet experts and like-minded non-EU countries like the US and Canada.

Another part of our global response should be collecting more information on respect for internet freedom in specific cases and individual countries and regions. If all the stakeholders combine their efforts, we can help uphold the standard set by international human rights agreements. I call on as many stakeholders as possible to work with us to this end.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Many of our good friends have already expressed a firm commitment to promoting internet freedom. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently called the internet ‘the public space of the 21st century’, and made a strong call for us to protect human rights online as we do offline. And I just heard Carl Bildt make a similar appeal, referring to the round tables he organized to help United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression Frank LaRue prepare his report for the Human Rights Council in June. The Netherlands also supports Mr LaRue's work wholeheartedly – especially also because non-Western stakeholders are involved as well. This is important, as internet freedom is a global issue that deserves a global approach. We should join voices and forces. We owe it to the world’s many courageous cyber dissidents, to people like Esraa Abdel Fattah, to take promoting freedom of expression to the next, digital level.

(This speech was delivered by Pieter de Gooijer, Director-General for Political Affairs and future Permanent Representative of The Netherlands at the European Union, on behalf of Uri Rosenthal, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, at the International Digital Economy Accords (IDEA) Brussels Meeting organised by the Aspen Institute, Brussels, 24 March 2011)