Anna Lindh Lecture, Lund, 18 March 2019
"Check against delivery"
Ladies and gentlemen
It’s a very great honour to join you here at Lund University, to honour the memory of Anna Lindh, and her life of public service.
In 1962, before many of us were even born, a young law graduate from the United States arrived here in Lund. The topic of her studies – civil procedure in Sweden – wasn’t one that seemed likely to change the world. And yet the things that Ruth Bader Ginsburg saw here in Sweden really did end up changing the lives of millions of women.
Because it was her experiences in Sweden that first made this brilliant and thoughtful woman – only the second woman ever to sit on the US Supreme Court – start to think seriously about gender equality.
When she got into Harvard, she was invited to dinner by the Dean of the Law School, along with the other eight women in a class of 500,1. And he asked each one of them to stand up and say how they could justify taking a spot from a qualified man.
But here in Sweden, she found something different. Here, as many as one in four of the law students were women. And women were not only students, but judges. More than fifty years later, she vividly remembered attending a case where the judge was eight months pregnant.
What Ruth Bader Ginsburg found here in Sweden was a society where women could write their own stories – and not have those stories written for them, from the day they were born, by Law School Deans trying to fight off a threat to their power.
And this, in the end, is what our values are for. This is why we stand up for freedom, and fairness, and equality. Because of all the young people who never had the chance to escape from the roles which their gender or ethnicity or poverty chained them to. And because of the joy and fulfilment of the ones who finally got the chance to make their own choices.
The Internet and the growth of freedom
Since 1962, we’ve come ever closer to building a truly fair and equal society. So today, we really can say that Europe is the best place to live in all of history – especially if you’re a woman.
That growth of freedom and equality owes a huge amount to the dedication of generations of Europeans, who’ve worked to make our societies a little better and fairer each day.
But it also owes a lot to the power technology has given us, to choose our own path and design our own lives.
The Internet can help people trapped in their homes by old age or poor health, and turn a lonely and sheltered existence into an rich world of experience and friendship. It can help people whose ambitions or interests or sexuality leave them feeling isolated in their own communities, by helping them to find the courage to live life in the way that’s right for them.
And the Internet can also help new voices to be heard – not just the voices of the powerful, but the contributions of those who might never have had their say otherwise.
The #MeToo movement may have begun in reaction, not to a blog or a tweet, but a news story in the New York Times. But it’s the Internet that made it impossible to silence; that forced our societies to face up to the way that sexual harassment still blights the lives and careers of too many women.
And in so many other ways as well, the Internet has given us the chance to do things our own way. It’s allowed us to learn, when we can’t afford books; to study online at the world’s greatest universities – including this one; to become our own travel agents, our own newspapers, the controllers of our own TV channels. It’s given us, in short, more control over our lives.
The threat of power in the digital world
But when you look at our politics and societies today, what you see doesn’t look like a confident world, where people have more opportunities than ever. Instead, you see anxiety and fear sweeping away old certainties and traditional parties, and even threatening the values that Europe was built on.
And I think that’s because Europe’s voters have seen – more clearly and quickly than many of their leaders – that the very same changes that open up such opportunities, also contain the seeds of a much darker possible future. A future not of freedom but of constraint; not of opportunities for everyone, but of powerful interests that control ever more of our lives.
Power and the manipulation of debate
There’s never been a time in our history when our political debates have been as open and as free as they are now. In this age of social media, politics is no longer something we only take part in at election time. Today, all of us can be part of the conversation, all the time. And after all, that’s what democracy should be about.
The trouble is that this ideal of an open debate, where every voice counts as much as any other, doesn’t reflect what happens in reality. When you bring out a picnic on a summer day, it’s not long before the wasps are swarming around it. And in the same way, an environment that’s open and unfiltered very quickly attracts the attention of power.
And we’ve all seen the harm that can do, when powerful interests take over those debates. We’ve seen how the lies that spread online can tip an election, or sow doubt about the need to tackle climate change. They can even cost lives, the way that they do when outright lies about the risks of vaccination leave our children vulnerable to disease.
And we’ve seen how hard it can be to tell who’s behind this sort of disinformation. Because what looks like at first glance like a grassroots movement can turn out to be nothing but a front for the interests of power.
These days, there are signs of a gathering challenge to human rights, not just in countries far from our borders, but right here in Europe. But it’s important that we see that threat for what it is.
It isn’t simply a spontaneous uprising, a sudden loss of confidence by the people of Europe in the very rights and values that keep them safe and free. One recent survey, for instance, still put human rights in second place among the most important values for Europeans – just a whisker behind peace. What’s really happening is that powerful interests, hiding behind anonymity, are driving a campaign to strip the European people of their rights.
That includes interests outside the EU, who see our unity and strength as a threat to their own power; and who understand, quite rightly, that the values we share are the key to that unity. But it also includes those within the EU who see their power threatened by the rights of others – by the equality that means they have to compete fair and square, the rule of law which allows people to stand up for their rights.
Openness and the perpetuation of power
And sometimes, the digital world can undermine fairness, and entrench power, even without real intent.
A famous study in the journal Nature, nearly fifteen years ago, helped to change the way we understand the possibilities of the Internet. That study found – to the surprise of many people at the time – that Wikipedia was almost as reliable as the Encyclopaedia Britannica. And it showed us that the Internet doesn’t just offer more freedom; that it can help us to better understand the world around us, by learning from the wisdom of crowds.
That can be a good way to capture conventional wisdom. But conventional wisdom is filled with the assumptions of power. In Danish Wikipedia, for instance, there are articles about nearly 60,000 men, but only 12,000 women.
That clearly needs to change. And so a few days ago – to commemorate International Women’s Day, and with the support of Wikipedia itself – about a hundred people came together in Copenhagen to work side by side, to fill in the gaps.
That’s quite easy on Wikipedia, which anyone can edit. But there are times when it’s simply isn’t possible to see, much less correct, the biases that shape the world around us.
Artificial intelligence can help us to make better decisions, by finding the patterns in data that humans overlook. But the results it produces are only as reliable as the data that goes in. And as much as we may believe in fairness and equality, the world we live in – and the data that describes it – is indelibly marked by power.
One study has shown, for example, how artificial intelligence designed to understand language can learn the biases in the way our world works – learning, for instance, to associate women with the home, and men with maths and engineering.
And the trouble is that it can be very easy to assume that a decision made by a computer is reliable and objective – because, after all, it’s surely based on logic and maths, not emotion. So we need to be exceedingly careful, to make sure AI doesn’t become a way to entrench prejudice and power.
Taxing the digital world
The fact is, the openness and freedom of the digital world can also be an invitation for powerful interests to increase their power, at the expense of the rest of us.
More than a century ago, Prussia and Austria-Hungary signed a treaty which agreed that each country would only tax businesses that had a fixed place of business in that country. It was an elegant solution, at a time when it seemed obvious that you couldn’t do serious business without a physical presence.
But today, the ease with which data can flow from one country to another makes it perfectly possible to make plenty of money from customers in a country, without having any sort of physical presence there. So a company that serves millions of customers in Europe might pay little or no tax here.
And as business becomes increasingly digital, that could become simply disastrous. It could strip our governments of the resources they need to provide the services that make for a decent society – and make it hard for those governments to guarantee their people human rights, to social security, or healthcare, or education. So we’re keen to see digital businesses pay their fair share of tax here in the EU. And we support the vital work which the OECD is doing right now, to find an international agreement to tackle this problem. Its objective is to submit its conclusion to the G20 meeting in June of this year
Democratic control of the digital world
The digital transformation that we’re going through today is affecting almost every part of our world. We’re finding that we need to look again at the rules and regulations that govern our lives, to make sure they strike the right balance between the needs of the different parts of our society.
In a few days, for example, I hope the European Parliament will vote to bring Europe’s copyright laws up to date – so the rewards for creating the songs or videos we love go to the people who created them, not just to big platforms; and so users who upload material to the Internet won’t find that material being removed without good reason.
But the choices we have to make today also go deeper. The digital world that we live in offers us both the chance of freedom, and the risk of more control; the chance of equality, and the risk that powerful interests will gain even more power to tip the scales in their own favour. And the difficulty is to find a way to stay open – without letting powerful interests misuse that very openness.
I don’t have all the answers to that. But I do think it can help if we understand that regulating the digital world is not simply about finding the least disruptive solution. Because what we’re dealing with are the human rights of Europe’s people.
The importance of privacy
So digital businesses need to understand, for instance, that privacy is not just a hoop to jump through, but an essential protection for the freedom of Europeans.
Because one of the most vital guarantees of that freedom is the principle that we have the right to a private life. And for that right to mean anything, we need to be able to choose who we invite into those private spaces. Who we let into our homes, and who keep out. And also who gets to see our private information, and what they can use it for.
And it’s vital that digital businesses understand this. It’s vital that they realise that privacy is more than just a box to be ticked. That it’s more than just a problem that will go away if they bury us under privacy policies that let them do whatever they choose with our data, and leave us none the wiser about what will actually happen.
Private businesses, public responsibilities
And as the digital transformation of our world moves more of our lives into the control of certain companies, our democracies will also need to find ways to make sure that they can step in, to protect people’s interests.
In ancient Athens, democracy meant that all citizens could come together and participate in a single debate. And today – for the first time in the modern age – the Internet again makes it possible to do that, in a single virtual space we all share.
But that space is very different from the meeting place in Athens. That ancient meeting place was a public space. Its equivalent, in modern times, is privately owned.
This shift, from public to private, doesn’t have to be a problem. Just because a social media network is privately owned, that doesn’t have to mean that anything goes. But in this very complex digital world, we need to understand enough about how these systems work, to be able to keep them under democratic control.
It can be difficult, for instance, to know who’s paying for ads on a social media network, or how the company that runs it chooses which posts to make more visible, and which to remove.
And if this digital age means we’ll rely more and more on private businesses, to carry out the most fundamental tasks of our society, then we’ll need a totally new approach to transparency. We’ll need to be able to trust that digital businesses are open with us about the way their services work, so we can do our job, and make sure they respect people’s rights.
Because the freedom which the Internet has given us is truly the great achievement of our times. But we have to understand that the idea of a totally free and equal Internet, where power is irrelevant, is nothing more than a dangerous myth.
The truth is, power is an unavoidable part of human life. You can try to limit the harm it can do to individuals, by bringing it under democratic control. But you can’t wish it away. And if you pretend it isn’t there, you just leave yourself open to manipulation; to power entrenching itself so deeply that it may never be possible to find the way back to equality.
And so the first thing we need to do, to protect our freedom, is to be honest with ourselves. To understand that freedom without democratic control contains the seeds of its own destruction. And that to preserve a digital world where we are free to make our own choices, the first choice we need to make is never to compromise on our digital human rights.