Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda
ICT for democracy: supporting a global current of change
Freedom Online – Joint Action for Free Expression on the Internet
The Hague, 9 December 2011
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I would like to thank the Dutch Government for organising this conference. It's a pleasure to be here.
The Arab Spring was a wake-up call for all of us. A reminder that democracy is not just a rich world luxury—but something which people hope and struggle for everywhere. And a reminder that, across the world, information and communications technology can support freedom of speech and enable the peaceful transition to democracy.
It is clear that, in particular, mobile phones, online social networks and microblogging sites have an incredibly important role to play. Helping activists organise, mobilise and exercise their rights. And so we should support the use of those tools.
So I have been looking further at the role of ICT. I have discussed it with governments, NGOs, academia, businesses, and with colleagues in the EU's External Action Service.
In addition, I have personally met many of those on the frontline: activists fighting for democracy in their countries. And let me say, it was a refreshing and often humbling experience.
These are people, often young people, fighting for the most basic rights you can think of. Sometimes risking their lives; I met them on condition of anonymity, such are the dangers they face every day. I committed to doing whatever I can to support their cause.
I acknowledge that the Internet and ICT are only part of the solution.
To build a house with solid foundations, we also need the rule of law, democratic governance, open and inclusive societies, competitive markets, an independent media sector and economic growth. My colleague Cathy Ashton will soon present the EU Human Rights Strategy, to help us achieve these important, wider goals.
Because, even with ICT, even with everyone connected, democracy would still not magically spring from nowhere. Even where the shoots of democracy begin to appear, they take time to grow. Such emerging democracies are vulnerable, and wherever possible we must allow the space for growth to come organically from within, not be imposed from outside.
What's more, I acknowledge that technology brings risks as well as opportunities for activists. Yes, ICT can help them communicate, organise and make their voices heard.
But it can also turn the other way: despotic governments can use ICT as a tool of surveillance and repression; a means to track and spy on those fighting for human rights.
I want us to take both of these facts into account. I want ICT to support our wider strategy for Human Rights. I want it to be an instrument to improve people's lives across the world.
I believe effective action needs to focus on four key areas: technology, education, intelligence and cooperation.
First, citizens living in non-democratic regimes need technological tools to help them. Tools which shield them from indiscriminate surveillance. Tools which help them bypass restrictions on their freedom to communicate. Tools which are simple and ready-made. I want the EU to help develop and distribute those tools, in a framework that ensures the legitimacy of our action.
Second, activists may need guidance on the opportunities offered by ICT services like social networks. But they may also be dangerously ignorant of the risks they run when they use ICT: like the risk of being spied on and tracked down, even for sending a simple email or text message. We must educate them about the risks and opportunities of ICT. Through material which is simple and informative. Stuff that people without a degree in computer science can understand. In the form of pamphlets, videos, websites, whatever it takes.
Third, to respond to disruptions in ICT services, we need high-quality intelligence about what is going on "on the ground". To know when to act, we need to get information quickly, and act on it quickly. We need information we can trust. And we need to combine the expertise and intelligence of everyone – from the public sector to business, academia and civil society.
Good intelligence about service disruptions means we do not have to throw ourselves at every rumour, but can use our resources where it matters.
And fourth, we must cooperate. Many groups are out there in this field, all with ultimately the same interest. We need to play to every actor's strengths, without duplicating efforts. A practical way to ensure that all stakeholders can share information on their activity; without fearing the misuse of sensitive information.
At the same time, every actor, public and private, must take up their responsibilities. Companies should be transparent about the technology they are selling in certain countries. If technology is used by certain repressive governments to identify innocent citizens and put their life or freedom in danger, we ought to know.
In such areas, we can react with legal measures such as sanctions, as we have done in the case of Syria. But, for me, this is not just a legal issue, it is a moral issue.
I think it is high time for the industry to decide where they stand, and what they are going to do. If not as a moral issue, then as an issue of corporate reputation. Being known for selling despots the tools of their repression is, to say the least, bad PR.
Self regulation could help here. The industry should come up with concrete solutions. The Global Network Initiative is one possible model, but I don't want to be prescriptive at this stage. But I do want to see some kind of action. For our part, we are ready to support that process with expertise and operational support.
These are the main strands of the policy we need to undertake – technological tools, education, intelligence, and cooperation.
For I am determined that we in the EU can do something about this. And I have been working closely with Cathy Ashton to ensure we can do so. On Monday we will be announcing further details about how we can take this forward.
At the EU level, we have powerful levers; for example trade policy. When it comes to supporting democracy, we are a credible voice on the international stage. And we already have well-resourced instruments for foreign policy, development and human rights: instruments which can be put at the service of this noble aim. Acting together, acting as more than the sum of our parts, and working with the many others out there, we stand ready to support a true European action.
ICT can help those, wherever they are in the world, who suffer under tyrants, those who struggle for democracy. In North Africa we have seen the beginnings of a turn in the tide. Let's now ride the crest of that global wave of change.