Opening speech GCCS Bert Koenders

Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,
Thank you for joining us in The Hague, the international city of peace and justice, at the fourth Global Conference on CyberSpace.

Cyberspace is not commonly associated with fundamental notions like peace and justice. We used to think of ‘cyber’ as something to do with science, and even science fiction. Books, movies and TV shows, in which computers interacted with humans and with other computers, usually resulting in general mayhem and mischief. And generally these stories presented a dystopian view of the future.

‘We are all, by any practical definition of the words, foolproof and incapable of error.’ These are the words of HAL, the computer system in charge of operations aboard the spacecraft Discovery One, in Stanley Kubrick’s film and Arthur C. Clarke’s book 2001: A Space Odyssey. 

We no longer need a movie or a book to show us that this statement is not necessarily a comforting one. And even if our systems were foolproof and incapable of error, this hardly holds true for their operators and users.

It’s almost in spite of these misgivings that we find ourselves here today. Thanks to modern technology, billions of devices are connected to each other in cyberspace and many more will follow. The Internet of Things is becoming a reality. I don’t think it’s necessary to laud the opportunities that flow from these developments. Yes, they make our lives easier and our work more productive. They help us relax and engage, entertain and create. But they also make us more vulnerable. The growth in our dependency on digital and online cyber systems is outstripping our ability to safeguard and protect these systems from crime, espionage and infringements on our privacy. And this is where The Hague, as the international city of peace and justice, comes in. Because in the world we are creating, we cannot take peace and justice for granted.

Today we stand at a crossroads. Should we continue to presume that we are as foolproof and incapable of error as we believe our computer technology to be? Should we continue to expect cyberspace to develop, of its own accord, into a realm where peace and justice prevail?

I don’t think we should. I believe that the international community, gathered here today and tomorrow, has to find answers to these fundamental questions:

  • What are the terms of the social contract that governs the behaviour of citizens, corporations and governments in cyberspace?
  • How do we find the right balance between freedom, security and economic growth in relation to cyberspace?

The Netherlands champions a free, open and secure internet. That’s our core message. That’s what this conference is intended to promote.

  • Free, so that everyone has access to the internet and the unprecedented opportunities it offers.
  • Open, so that information can flow unimpeded from one user to another, in a single undivided cyberspace.
  • Secure, so that personal data are protected and privacy is safeguarded.

We understand that the internet brings people together, generates ideas and so helps shape our future. The Netherlands is calling for action based on the conviction that we should not curb the innovative power of the internet. And it is calling on governments to closely coordinate their action with all stakeholders, especially the business community and civil society.

I realise that for some of us – especially in government circles – this is not our first impulse. Today, cyberspace is so closely bound up with the way our society works, with the welfare and security of our peoples, that we initially feel governments themselves should take the lead in making multilateral agreements – agreements between states to the exclusion of the private sector and civil society.

But given the nature of cyberspace, such an approach can never generate lasting solutions. Government, businesses and civil society should work together to develop and govern the internet according to a multi-stakeholder model, in which each focuses on their own role:

  • interconnectivity is mainly a matter for the tech community;
  • cyber security should be a shared interest wherever possible; 
  • and national security is principally a task for government.

 All our efforts should proceed from the same starting point, namely that the internet must be free, open and secure.

It’s instructive to make a comparison with other sectors. Take the banking sector or civil aviation. We invest in safety and we expect everyone to contribute: not just governments but also the banks themselves. Not just the airlines or the airports, but also the passengers. We do this not to curb use of these services, but rather to promote it. We invest in security for the benefit of law-abidingusers, and to make criminals think twice before robbing a bank or hijacking a plane. We set standards and reporting obligations not to hamper business, but to promote a stable and reliable business environment. Security is not just the flip side of the coin, it is the coin itself. We need it in order to pay and to be paid. We need it to keep the banking system, air travel and – by extension – the internet alive.

Peace and justice cannot truly exist in a world that is unequal. One fundamental problem with the social contract underpinning cyberspace these days is that there are still too many people in the world that do not enjoy its benefits. The gap between those who are connected, and those who are not, is growing by the day. And once you are a part of cyberspace, it’s becoming an ever more complex task to maintain safe and secure connections.

We need to tackle this digital divide and its consequences. That is why my country wants to invest in capacity-building in developing countries, helping them to keep the internet open and free. Training them to protect online privacy, prevent cyber crime and safeguard sensitive systems. There is much we can learn from each other. That’s why we are launching the Global Forum on Cyber Expertise this afternoon.

Peace and justice cannot truly exist in a world that does not acknowledge the special status of the core infrastructure of the internet. It should be treated as a public commons, open to all, free from domination. This is the way we treat the high seas, in line with the writings of the Dutch jurist and philosopher Hugo Grotius in the early 17th century.

But that doesn’t mean it should be unregulated. After all, we have treaties and practices regulating our behaviour on the high seas. And it certainly doesn’t mean that cyberspace is a lawless environment, in which Hobbes’s state of nature prevails. The rules and norms that apply offline, including the tenets of international law, most certainly apply online. So countries should be able to count on other states not interfering with or harming their root servers  and their critical infrastructure and services.

Again, this cannot be taken for granted. We are living in a complex security environment, both physically and virtually. In the hybrid warfare that we face today, all kinds of distinctions are blurred. Conventional warfare, irregular warfare and cyber warfare merge together. Regular military forces are faced with guerrilla groups, terrorists and outright criminals. In such an environment it’s difficult to tell friend from foe, ally from enemy.

The same holds true in cyberspace. It’s clear that cyber attacks can form a threat to international peace and stability. Brazen attacks on, say, a country’s government websites can trigger disastrous chain reactions – especially if they can be traced back to hackers controlled by foreign governments. We need to set up a system of confidence-building measures that can help prevent destabilisation and help ensure confidence in cyberspace worldwide. Transparency about how governments operate in cyberspace will foster détente and reduce mistrust on all sides. The focus session on International Peace and Security will look at this issue in more depth, and I salute the work of the UN Group of Governmental Experts  in this respect.

Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

To help bring about a free, open and secure internet in this city of peace and justice, the Netherlands – in close cooperation with its partners – is proposing an ambitious agenda for the near future. In terms of peace, this entails:

  • formulating clear rules and norms for the behaviour of states in cyberspace;
  • fostering greater transparency and taking confidence-building measures;
  • defining those parts of cyberspace that are inviolable.

And in terms of justice, it means: 

  • bridging the digital divide by building capacity;
  • promoting freedom and protecting privacy online;
  • and to that end, setting up a regime for export controls on internet surveillance equipment.

To achieve these goals, the international community must continue to engage with all stakeholders. We need to keep cyberspace on the agenda of all relevant regional and international organisations. Action on these points will not only promote the vision of a free, open and secure internet. It will make it a reality.

Confidence in a free, open and secure internet will be a key success factor in tomorrow’s world. We need to step up our efforts to realise this vision. I am convinced that the Hague Global Conference on CyberSpace will help us do so, and make cyberspace safe for the sake of peace and justice.

Thank you.