Speech by Wopke Hoekstra, Minister of Foreign Affairs, at the Brightlands Smart Services Campus

Speech by Wopke Hoekstra, Minister of Foreign Affairs, at the Brightlands Smart Services Campus, 12 June 2023.

Good afternoon everyone,

It’s a pleasure to be back in Limburg. A province with a special place in my heart.

Very good to see all of you and to discuss this tremendously important topic.

For me it is a great please to be here at the Brightlands Smart Services Campus, and to see people from business and government, as well as researchers and students – in the audience.

It reminds me of the days when I was a student myself, back in the very early days of the internet.

I remember thinking it was an exciting invention with endless promise.

Even though I have to admit that at the beginning I understood less than half of what actually was possible.

I shared the optimism of the day, of the area I grew up in.

In the year 2000, US President Bill Clinton even ridiculed China’s efforts to restrict online freedom of speech.

He literally said: ‘Good luck’. That’s sort of like trying to nail Jello to the wall.’

Well. Here we are, twenty-three years down the line.

The think tank Freedom House reports that internet freedom has declined dramatically across the globe.

A growing number of governments are willing to restrict internet access, limit freedom of expression online, and use cyber tools to track and intimidate dissidents as well as journalists.

They have actually figured out how to nail Jello to the wall.

We risk moving from a space of cooperation to one of suspicion and control.

Emerging and rapidly developing technologies like AI are likely to increase the threat.

In this new world, we are facing serious challenges.

The first one in my view is that there is an ungoing battle going on. Its is invisible. We are under constant attack.

Civilian and military infrastructure, businesses, the government, and the public at large are the constant target of relentless, large-scale cyberattacks.

We are the target of data theft, espionage, sabotage and disinformation.

Our intelligence services are very clear on this: many of these attacks originate in Russia and China.

And they will not stop, unless we decide to stop them.

We can see the same thing in Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Cyber operations have become an integral part of warfare, and I believe they should be included in the investigation of war crimes currently being committed by Russia.

Luckily, thanks to cyber support provided by Western countries and tech companies, Ukraine is able to withstand many of these cyberattacks.

Another threat we face is an ongoing campaign against the open internet.

Countries like Russia and China are trying to gain control over the way the internet is governed.

They are trying to lower standards to what is their level.

And they are trying to force those standards on others.

And the reality is the following.

If we do not act. If we do not protect the internet and the infrastructure behind it.

In another ten years we will see the end of the internet as we know it.

We cannot let this happen.

Even though I believe we have a moral duty to be optimistic – we can’t afford to be naïve.

So we need to work on three priorities:

  • Improve our digital security;
  • Stand up the values we hold dear; and
  • Protect the open, worldwide internet.

In short, we need exactly what we’re launching here today: a new International Cyber Strategy.

Let me touch briefly on each of these priorities.

As I said priority number one is security. Our adversaries don’t use cyber operations only for espionage or economic purposes.

They sabotage critical infrastructure, fuel instability, and spread disinformation.

This means we must be pro-active.

We’re stronger when we stand together, especially with our partners in the European Union.

All of them encounter this every single day.

We need to further empower the EU as a global cyber actor.

We have to improve our digital security, by using our collective technological strength, by expanding EU cyber legislation, by building international coalitions, and by innovating.

Innovating as many of our businesses do every single day.

At national level we’re investing in our defensive capabilities, our intelligence services, and our military capability.

This is our first line of defence.

We must show our adversaries that we’re willing and able to use all the tools at our disposal to repel and deter these type of acts.

I’m talking about diplomatic pressure, sanctions, intelligence and military capabilities, and economic measures. Because money talks.

Within NATO we have decided that a cyberattack can trigger what we call an Article 5 situation.

Which means that an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us.

And attacks come at a price.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Then there is our second priority: to stand up for our values.

Global democratic space is shrinking – including in the digital domain.

This could mean a future where content is censored, users are closely monitored, and technical standards are under greater government control.

I do believe we have a responsibility. I have a responsibility. The government has a responsibility. All of us in the Netherlands have a responsibility.

To protect journalists. To support human rights defenders, wherever they are. To speak out against disinformation every single time.

Our third and final priority is to help protect the open internet.

This brings us back to Bill Clinton’s Jello joke.

It was a good metaphor at the time, but times have changed. 

It is in fact possible to contain, and potentially split, the internet in various bits and pieces.

And even to influence the way the global internet system functions.

Decisions about how the internet is organised are made by bodies in which all stakeholders are represented, like the private sector, academics and NGOs. But this system is under pressure.

Authoritarian countries – like Russia and China – are working tirelessly to reshape the internet as a closed and controlled space.

They are very succesful at it in their own countries.

We must not let this happen at the global stage.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The government is working hard to stand up for our shared values, and to keep us safe.

Today, I am here to say: we can’t do this alone.

We need you, and your technical expertise, to help achieve these goals.

So I’d like to appeal to you all. Here present but also your colleagues, your coworkers, your friends.

If you believe in open, free and secure cyberspace, help us keep it that way.

Build, innovate, and share your experience.

The future of our digital world truly depends upon it.

Thank you.