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Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda
A European vision for Internet governance
European Dialogue on Internet Governance (EuroDIG) seminar
Stockholm, 14 June 2012
Europe today faces many challenges. The Internet can help us resolve them: today I want to talk about how a European approach to the Internet could help even more. Our main challenge today is to ensure the jobs and growth that will lift us out of crisis. And the Internet provides an extraordinary new platform for innovation. Studies suggest that 10 percentage points of extra broadband penetration translates to 1 to 1.5% extra growth.
It can offer jobs too. Soon we will face a shortage of 700,000 ICT workers: that's good news if you're one of the 5.5 million under-25s looking for work. As long as you have the right awareness and skills.
And it can boost our competitiveness and productivity, by offering a new way of doing pretty much everything. Look at the Cloud. It could radically reshape current models for ICT services. Transforming not just the digital economy – but every other sector that uses it, from small businesses who get flexible and cheap back office services, to other sectors from health to music. Europe has the potential to leapfrog the next digital revolution, and to be in the lead. It is time to get over the gloom of the euro-crisis and to embrace the future!
Of course, growth and jobs are not the only challenges we face in Europe today. But, guess what? – ICT can help with the other ones too.
We need to manage resources and deal with climate change: Internet-based innovations from teleconferencing to smart electricity grids can help us.
We need to deal with an ageing population: eHealth solutions can help people stay active and independent longer as they age, more effectively for less cost.
We face strained public finances and demands to do more with less: eGovernment can deliver better services more efficiently.
The Internet isn't a magic wand. It won't solve all those problems overnight. But it does offer us the possibility of an alternative future: one in which innovating to overcome those problems is a lot easier.
We can't lose sight of that. The Internet is key to our sustainable future. We must remove obstacles to its huge potential.
With that in mind, we can see how important it is that we take the right approach to global Internet governance.
This is often a polarised debate. Between, on the one hand, those wanting public authorities to be heavily involved; and on the other those who want a more hands-off, "laissez faire" approach.
For me, the right answer lies somewhere between.
On the one hand, of course public authorities have a duty to enforce the law and protect rights. Equally, we should not cramp the Internet's potential for innovation. Not least because that innovation is in public authorities' interests too: it can benefit growth, democracy – and higher quality public services.
So the answer lies in a middle ground, between public intervention and public inaction. But where?
Last year I set out a Compact for the Internet – a set of principles for how we should take care of the Internet.
One of them was that there should be one, unified, Internet. In principle, every node can communicate with every other, wherever in the world it is. That is what has helped innovation, plurality, democratic values, cohesion and economic growth from the online world.
But we're here at the European forum for Internet Governance. And, without threatening that global unity, it's worth thinking about what European values might mean for a European vision for the Internet.
Because there are a number of areas where the Internet would benefit from a European approach. Let's remember what we're good at here in Europe – and how that could help the Internet.
First we are the home of freedom and fundamental rights. We need an Internet that supports that: a platform for democratic voices, a tool for those who struggle against tyranny.
Second: sometimes great ideas come when we cooperate, agreeing a common language and common standards. And here in Europe we are good at finding that kind of consensus. Look at the GSM standard that underpins most mobile networks: it was developed and agreed right here in Europe. Or indeed look at the standards that inspired the World Wide Web itself. Without those standards , you don't have a common platform for all the innovation to happen.
Second, we can find unity amid our diversity. That's what the EU is all about – and the Internet too! The web is a great way to find that unity and bring different cultures together; online translation being just one obvious example. Europe is a great testbed for trying out those kind of ideas – ideas which, once you've mastered them here, can also serve you well in other markets.
Third, we are used to the idea that rules and regulations can help markets, by building trust and confidence. Look at the rules we have on consumer rights or data protection –currently the subject of a major reform proposal. Those have served us well offline: they can do so online, too, if applied in the right way. In a dematerialised world, one of the big challenges is to identify which set of rules from which territory should apply . To do that in a way that avoids loopholes or artificially tilted playing fields, and also to avoid over-reaching beyond ones territorial jurisdiction. Our data protection proposal takes up that challenge. And it is a key point in our forthcoming strategy on Cloud computing.
Because, ultimately, we've recognised that appropriate public intervention can help build markets, that freedom and safety go hand in hand. If people feel confident to act online, that would be a bigger support to the Internet than letting it develop as some kind of lawless Wild West.
We need to find a balance. But imagine if Europe could become the safest place in the world to go online: for citizens, for consumers and for businesses. Imagine what a boost that would be.
Of course, there is much we can learn from other parts of the world. I believe there is as much entrepreneurial spirit here in Europe as in Silicon Valley.
And I see that American banks are now starting to notice that too. The Silicon Valley Bank just opened its first UK branch – supporting sectors including technology and venture capital with loans from a few hundred thousand euros to tens of millions.
Of course start-ups don't just need finance. They also need the licence to fail they have over in the US, or indeed the truly integrated home market where US start-ups can rapidly grow.
But we shouldn't be negative about our differences with the US, nor of our values. We should rather use them in a way that promotes and supports growth online. Without being heavy-handed, without limiting online freedoms, and without fragmenting the unity of the Internet.
Let me give a couple of examples of how we can do that. Indeed: how we are doing that. Take protecting children online. It's is a vital goal – and I'm delighted that this conference is taking the time to discuss it.
For that issue, we need to find solutions that don't just manage the risks - but maximise the opportunities.
And there are huge opportunities. If we build trust in the online world, if we empower parents and children and make them feel safe online, we can do much more than simply protect them from harm. We can find new platforms, open up huge demand, and help a huge content market take off. If we make the Internet a great place for kids to be, a place where they can learn, play and explore; a place where they feel safe and happy: then the sky's the limit!
That is exactly what our strategy on a Better Internet for Children, released last month, sets out.
But we should not be naïve. This week there have been disturbing stories – and criminal convictions – in the United Kingdom about more than 80 children groomed for sexual abuse through an online game called Habbo Hotel. This happened even though the company signed up to the Commission’s “Safer Social Networking Principles.” We don’t yet know the full extent of this issue but it is undoubtedly something that occurson many sites.
So my message is not that it is safer offline – it isn’t – but that companies and parents cannot be complacent. If they stay complacent then we will have to get tougher.
No one is a stronger support of freedom than me. But freedom is a two-way street. If the internet world wants to keep maximum freedom from regulation it also needs to stand up and take responsibility. Nobody’s right to freedom extends to practices like sexual grooming.
But there are indeed tools to massively reduce this sort of behaviour.
Take the Commisson’s new proposal on eIdentification as one example. In Austria and Iceland, for example, chatrooms aimed at teenagers often require users to verify their age through scanning of their ID card. This keeps adults and children who are too young out of the spaces that are not intended for them.
Common rules to recognise and accept eIdentification and authentication not only give high levels of security, for example when shopping online, they can also enhance web anonymity. That is because e-IDs allow an authority or business to verify only the information that needs to be verified for a given transaction. In contrast filling in a physical form of showing a standard ID card tends to automatically share a lot of information.
If we build trust in that way, we don't just increase peace of mind. We can make transacting online safe and comfortable. We can ensure web innovators easily benefit from spreading their ideas to the Single Market. And we can maximise the innovation potential of the online world.
Of course, sound Internet governance means not just the tools and the policies we use – but the processes and mechanisms for how we decide them.
When it comes to that, we in the European Commission are strong supporters of the multi-stakeholder approach. And we have long been so. Because dialogue, participation and cooperation at all levels are the best tools for the best Internet.
I want to apply that cooperative approach to the EU level. Cooperating is something we're good at: but it's also essential if we want to project our European vision onto the world stage. So we've been meeting with many key players to that end – with the European Parliament, EU businesses and civil society, to ensure Europe really pulls its weight in the Internet Governance Forum. I am convinced that the IGF can achieve more. If we want the multi-stakeholder model to be sustainable, it has to be able to deliver policy guidance too. Not only debates.
Yesterday we and EuroDIG organised a pre-event to explore those issues further. Many concrete ideas were put forward, and I hope this shows that the Commission is committed to a constructive leadership role in the multistakeholder approach.
More broadly, some have made the case that existing structures aren't enough for Internet governance. That public authorities need a new organisation, perhaps within the UN, to meet their responsibilities.
To be honest, I'm not sure we do. Sure, we need better coordination and communication; but I am not convinced that means we need a whole new organisation.
But in any case, I prefer being pragmatic to being dogmatic. We need to first identify what the problem might be.
To work together, with all stakeholders involved, to map out more clearly where stronger cooperation or coordination is needed, and what structures will give us truly multilateral decision-making.
Either way, I believe that the best way to support the Internet is to have faith in our European values: and have faith that they can deliver online, too.