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Neelie Kroes

Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda

Using technology to support freedom

Press conference on "No disconnect Strategy"

Brussels, 12 December 2011

Human Rights runs through everything we do here in the EU. And the right to communicate freely is one of the most basic of those Human Rights. Just as I have taken freedom of expression seriously within the Union – I now extend that beyond the Union with the launch of the EU's "No Disconnect Strategy."

The Arab Spring was a wake-up call. About the global desire for democracy. And about the positive role technology can play.

In Egypt, social media tools allowed people to by-pass state-run media. Everyone with a mobile could be a journalist.

In 1982 in Syria, the Hama massacre was hidden for months. In 2011 video-sharing services helped expose regime abuses. They made us aware and better able to take action.

Repressive regimes now understand the power of these networks and have tried to turn them off.

They did not succeed. And the EU is working to ensure online rights are respected like offline rights.

We have been talking to experts, policymakers, and activists themselves. I call our work in this area – in supporting the role of ICT in ensuring fundamental rights – our "no disconnect" strategy.

Because, when peaceful protests are being planned, connectivity is everything. Communications networks must stay switched on. Networks of people – organisers, protestors, activists - must stay plugged into them, and to each other. That is how they can mobilise, safely and effectively.

Used correctly, technology helps activists to deliver democracy – without being spied on by authorities.

I think our approach needs to take into account four main strands.

First, we must develop and distribute tools to help activists bypass restrictions on their freedom to communicate, while avoiding indiscriminate surveillance. Tools which are simple and ready-made.

Second, to educate activists about the opportunities and risks of using ICT.

Third, to ensure we have high-quality intelligence about what's going on "on the ground" so we can respond where it counts, and we shouldn't rely only on others for that intelligence.

And fourth, all the actors in this field must cooperate, to play to our own strengths without duplicating work.

I spoke on all of these issues last Friday at a major international conference in The Hague. But for obvious reasons I cannot speak publicly about all the elements of the strategy.

Three of the most important actions I want you to know about are:

  • Deployment of "Internet survival packs" to activists. Easy-to-use software/hardware packages helping people to bypass censorship and counter surveillance.

  • Stimulating EU companies to develop self-regulatory approaches (or join existing ones, such as the Global Network Initiative) so we stop selling despots their ICT tools of repression

  • Hosting support – to help prohibited content reach its audience (blogs and videos for example)

I also know the priority the European Parliament attaches to Internet freedom as an essential part of our approach to protect human rights.

But this is a complex task, easier said than done.

I myself am working closely with Cathy Ashton and the External Action Service. But we will need all sectors and all good ideas.

Therefore I have asked Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg to assist me on the right way to take forward and implement our "no disconnect strategy".

I approached Karl-Theodor before the summer about this role. This was my choice and my idea. I am looking for talent, not a saint. Having worked with him when he was Economics Minister in Germany I know his vision of freedom, his international outlook and that he values European action, and understands we have more international weight when we act together

Karl-Theodor has also led two Ministries with direct relevance to this work. As a former head of armed and security services, with deep experience in foreign affairs, I know Karl-Theodor can have the right conversations and give internet freedom the prominence it deserves.

I am delighted he has accepted my invitation to assist me on a voluntary basis.

And now I would like to hand over to him to talk about how he will take forward this work.

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