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Spread internet freedom further

22 May 2013.

Published in Dagens Industri (SE)

EU Commissioner Cecilia Malmström participating in a panel on freedom and security at the 2013 Stockholm Internet Forum. Photo: Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs

Technology must be used to enhance freedom and security - not to undermine those values. Leaders of democratic and free societies now have a moral obligation to share experiences of how to combine freedom and security in our digital age, write EU Commissioner Cecilia Malmström and Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Carl Bildt.

Virtually the entire planet is now covered by mobile connection systems. Fibre-optic cables and satellites link the continents together in an increasingly complex and powerful network. The hardware revolution will take us into an era of hyperconnectivity. Today the internet connects 5 or 6 billion devices - by 2020, it will connect 50 billion.

This will mean new challenges. A few years ago the focus was on building up physical network capacity in Africa, Asia and parts of South and North America. The next step in capacity building must focus on relatively opaque components of our hyperconnected world. How can we create the necessary institutional arrangements to safeguard an open, safe and secure internet worldwide? How can we foster end user awareness and responsibility? And how can we prevent new technology being used to undermine freedom and human rights?

These are the themes at this year's Stockholm Internet Forum, which starts today. More than 400 government representatives, activists, academics and business representatives - half of them from developing countries - have come together to exchange their insights on how to build the necessary institutions for internet freedom and security.

To some extent, maintaining the internet is a common global task. The present cooperation between non-state and state actors is well suited for dealing with the global and technical dimensions of the internet.

At present there are shortcomings in national legislation, which often strikes a poor balance between freedom and security. The new technology is a powerful weapon not just in the hands of the individual, but also for governments. Some states see cybercrime and terrorism as a pretext for action that endangers the free flow of information and knowledge.

The new international conventions, treaties or codes that China, Russia and other states are attempting to create at UN level would ultimately lead to stricter government control of the internet, while lending such measures international legitimacy. In the longer term, this would also curtail freedom of expression online. Instead, the international community should build upon existing agreements, such as the Budapest Convention on Cybercrime. Technology must be used to enhance freedom and security - not to undermine those values.

In both the industrialised and the developing world, we know how to create institutions that both guarantee freedom and protect the individual. Although there is no 100 per cent perfect solution, there is enough knowledge to achieve greater transparency and a security apparatus based on democratic values.

So world decision-makers and others face a choice - either to use the methods applied by authoritarian regimes or to follow the approach that prevails in open societies under the rule of law. In the long run, the latter is the better option.

We must be quite clear about one thing: we all face serious threats to our online security, whether from cyberfraud perpetrated by organised crime or from state-sponsored attacks. Such threats must be tackled so that we can fully exploit the internet's potential. Internet users must feel secure when they use social networks, online banking or eGovernment services. International cooperation between like-minded countries has an important part to play. At EU level, we have done our homework this year and drawn up an overarching strategy for freedom and security online. This will strengthen our response to cybercrime, while remaining firmly rooted in the fundamental values of the Union. The newly opened cybercrime centre at Europol headquarters in The Hague, EC3, brings together the brightest minds in the field to assist national police in their investigations and coordinate resources and expertise. We have also, together with the United States, formed a Global Alliance against Child Sexual Abuse Online, a group of 49 countries worldwide committed to intensifying the fight against this horrendous crime.

The leaders of democratic and free societies have not only a responsibility to provide technical and financial assistance to countries that now want to be part of an increasingly online world, but also a moral obligation to share experiences of how to combine freedom and security in our digital age.

Last year, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution declaring that human rights also apply online. This was a groundbreaking step. Such principles must now be put into practice. They must take a prominent place in the everyday dialogue between countries caught up in a technological revolution that is changing the world.