Freedom online conference: contribution by Minister of Foreign Affairs Ben Knapen

It’s a great pleasure to participate in the Freedom Online Conference today.

I cherish internet freedom from many different perspectives. As a politician and a former journalist, as a historian and a grandfather.

In these roles, I marvel at the internet’s wonders, but also worry about its vulnerability and at times I’m puzzled about how we are allowing other enablers of our freedom to be eroded.

Let me clarify.

When I worked as a journalist, valuing media pluralism was an intrinsic part of our professional ethics.

We may all have believed that there was no better newspaper or news station than the one we worked for, but the idea that it might be the only one people read or saw would have filled us with dismay.

Not least because pluralism is an enabler of our freedom.

So I’m somewhat surprised by the turning we’ve taken in recent years.

One in which media pluralism is filtered by online platforms, which present people with just a fraction of the available news. Or to be more precise, with news that confirms what they already believe.

In this respect, online freedom can make us very unfree, trapping us in our own ‘bubbles’.

In recent years, we’ve seen how malign regimes can make terrible misuse of this.

The military personnel in Myanmar, for example, who spread lies about the Rohingya population on Facebook to incite hate.

While such disinformation is obviously harmful, the solutions are less straightforward, including in our vulnerable democracies where false information can be presented as alternative fact.

Indeed, here lies a true dilemma. Both disinformation and countermeasures can impact our fundamental freedom and a side-effect of the steps some countries have taken to counter disinformation has been to silence other people.

In her latest report on disinformation, U.N. Special Rapporteur Irene Kahn presents an interesting formula: the more human rights are constrained, the more disinformation will thrive.

But the more our freedom of speech is protected, the more we can spread and consume alternative viewpoints.

It’s a formula that opens up promising avenues to tackling disinformation.
A formula we’ve already adopted in my country.

During our last elections, for example, our defence against disinformation was to support civil society and journalists. Creating a stronger media landscape, while providing citizens with accurate and diverse information.

More broadly, the Netherlands believes that disinformation is a whole-of-society problem which needs a whole-of-society solution. A solution endorsed and carried forward not only by government, but also by our media and universities, and especially by online platforms. They must take their users’ rights seriously and make algorithms transparent.

Within the European Union, the Netherlands continues to insist on more far-reaching agreements with platforms regarding disinformation.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Today we celebrate the tenth anniversary of our Coalition.

As a grandfather, let me look ahead to the internet’s future users, our grandchildren.

In order for them to enjoy a free internet, we must foster an online environment built on factuality and pluralism. What I want for my grandchildren is an online space that resembles our offline public space. A tidy family-friendly market square, but also a slightly more rough-and-tumble football field, and some streets where some might fear to go.

But in the end, it’s your own choice.

I hope the FOC will continue to promote pluralism, human rights, and freedom of expression.
These values can make the internet great, and we need them now, more than ever.