Opening Speech by German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas

For an Internet of Freedom and Democracy

Speech delivered on the 29 November 2018 at the Annual Conference of the Freedom Online Coalition

So, has any one here already checked their emails this morning? Or read tweets or taken a look at their Facebook or Instagram accounts? Probably most, if not all of you.

We communicate practically non stop these days. The internet has, in a manner of speaking, reduced the distances between countries and continents to the time that it takes to send an email. Posts in social media are able to reach millions of users around the world in a matter of seconds. And a hashtag can trigger global debates, both in a positive and a negative way. 

Timothy Garton Ash has termed this digital world a global city or a virtual “cosmopolis”. 
I would like to stick with this image for a moment as it is a fine and most fitting one inasmuch as it illustrates not only the opportunities that we have, but also the challenges that we face. 

Similar to a city, the internet promises almost unlimited access to new ideas. It facilitates encounters with people from other countries and cultures, provides a platform for different opinions and connects us.

And yet we also sense that something is awry in this digital city. 

  • Instead of discussing issues of the future together, this city is becoming divided into small, self‑contained blocks of houses.
  • Opinions from the outside no longer manage to penetrate certain districts at all.
  • Instead, its streets are awash with propaganda, insults and hate speech.
  • And certain overseers are unfortunately also using the technology of the digital city to monitor the residents of their buildings or to spy on other blocks of flats.

As harmless as this may sound in metaphorical terms, in reality we are faced with profound questions.

  • Will we manage to preserve the internet as a realm of freedom, or will it become an instrument of suppression?
  • Will we be able to steward democracy in the digital age, or will the internet become a threat at the end of the day?

There are no simple answers to such fundamental questions. I therefore place my hope in the expertise that you have brought with you to the Federal Foreign Office today. 

Before you embark upon your discussions, I would like to offer you a few thoughts on something that we care about deeply here, namely freedom and democracy in this digital city.

Let’s start with freedom. The hope that the internet would pretty much automatically lead mankind to freedom took something of a hit at the latest with the dream that was the Arab Spring. 
Today, we are witnessing how countries such as China and Russia are using new technologies to censor content on the internet and also to keep tabs on their citizens. This is not only manifested in the form of repressive measures. Even supposedly positive incentives are serving their purpose – we need only consider China’s “social scoring”, which rewards or is intended to reward the good behaviour of its citizens. 

Let’s not be under any illusions here. This authoritarian model has the potential to become a leading export, in spite of the costs that isolationism and surveillance entail. 

The mantra of a “free and open” internet has long since ceased to make the cut as a counterargument. The absence of rules is not automatically synonymous with more freedom. On the contrary, without rules, cyberspace can become the perfect instrument of control. 

The challenge for us is therefore to establish rules that do not curtail freedom, but make it possible in the first place.
We must therefore draw a clear line in the sand marking where criminal law comes into play. Incitement to murder, criminal threats and agitation against minorities are not covered by the freedom of expression. Just as each and every state prosecutes such crimes on its streets and in public spaces, this must also be done in the virtual city. If not, the open exchange of views will perish.

And in this, as all of you who are acquainted with these questions in a professional capacity know, the devil is the detail. On the one hand, borderless cyberspace goes beyond the scope of application of each and every criminal code. On the other, there are, of course, different boundaries for where an expression of opinion ends and where criminal acts begin. 

In Germany, for example, denying the Holocaust is a criminal offence for historical reasons. This is not the case in most other countries, however.

We will not be able to completely level out such differences. However, we need to have a debate on where we can draw boundaries together and how we intend to deal with grey areas in the future. 

In areas not yet covered by criminal law code is law. If this is the case – and there is much to suggest that it is – then those who are responsible for programming software and algorithms shoulder particular responsibility in this respect. That is to say the companies that we are all familiar with, Google, Facebook, Twitter.

However, we as users can also define the parameters within which these companies operate. We have the power of the mouse, so to speak. This permits us to expressly expect compliance with certain minimum standards of platform operators. 
But it also allows us simply to ignore certain ugly expressions of opinion with the click of the mouse – for the sake of the freedom of opinion. Timothy Garton Ash terms this “robust civility”.

One of the Freedom Online Coalition’s objectives should therefore be to develop a common understanding of this robust civility. For this, we need the companies and civil society that joined forces this year to form a newly established advisory network. 

But we also need an open dialogue among the member states on this issue – a dialogue about which approaches to protecting human rights work online and areas in which we may perhaps need to take corrective measures. This is another reason why this year’s conference was preceded for the first time by peer learning among the member states. 
In this process it became clear that we have already achieved a great deal together. When Germany and Brazil first tabled a resolution in the United Nations on the right to privacy in the digital age five years ago, we still weren’t on the same page on the question as to whether human rights apply to the same extent both online and offline. We have achieved consensus on this issue since that time, thank goodness. 

Such progress is a source of encouragement – encouragement to confidently instate our model of a democratically regulated, free and open internet as an alternative to authoritarian and libertarian models.

We sense the competition between these different systems in the attacks to which our model is increasingly exposed. Almost all of the countries represented here today have been victims of hacker attacks and disinformation campaigns at one time or another. It is with this in mind that we are supporting the Paris Call launched by President Macron two weeks ago, which we want to advance together with the business community and civil society.

We must also guard ourselves against cyber attacks and disinformation with a view to the European elections next May. The current debate in Germany surrounding the Global Pact for Migration offers but a small foretaste in this regard. 

Only one thing can help us to combat such targeted disinformation campaigns, namely we must disclose the facts to clearly distinguish truth from lies and “fake news”.

This brings me to the second topic I wish to mention – democracy in cyberspace. What our digital city lacks is what was known as the agora in the poleis of ancient Greece. A market place in which opinions are exchanged, solutions debated and common decisions reached.

Hannah Arendt took the Greek concept of the agora as the starting point for her reflections on democracy. For her, the essence of democracy lay in the fact that “men in their freedom can interact with one another without compulsion, force, and rule over one another, as equals among equals, […] managing all their affairs by speaking with and persuading one another”.

This sounds almost utopian today. However, our goal must be to preserve precisely such democratic realms in cyberspace.
This requires three things to my mind: 
Firstly, for people to genuinely communicate on the internet “as equals among equals”, access must remain free and open for everyone. 

At the end of the day, this is about making humanity’s most important resource – knowledge – available to everyone. The beautiful thing about this is that knowledge that you make available to someone doesn’t have to be taken away from anyone else. Shared information doesn’t become less, but more. 
This idea also forms the basis for the statement on overcoming the digital divide between North and South, which we as the Freedom Online Coalition intend to adopt this year.

Secondly, we must proffer facts to counter “fake news”. Only on the basis of facts is a meaningful exchange among equals possible in the first place. 

We as governments are more than dependent on the help of companies and civil society in this regard. After all, governments can and must never hold a monopoly on the truth.

The fact that there are increasing numbers of private fact checkers out there gives me hope, and also that increasing numbers of NGOs are committed to respectful behaviour and dialogue on the internet. A shining example, here in Germany, is the “Ich bin hier” (I am here) initiative, which is taking an effective stand against brutalisation online. 

And internet companies are also increasingly living up to their responsibility – for example by identifying trustworthy sources and contributing verifiable facts to dispel certain crude theses.

These are all good approaches that should continue to be pursued. It must be a priority for all of us to ensure that “free and open” continues to be synonymous with “humane and democratic” also in the future. 

Thirdly, in order to strengthen democracy in our cosmopolis we need a new approach to social media. 

Allow me to give you one example. Facebook has over two billion users. It knows what our hobbies and preferences are. But why does it nevertheless suggest only that content and only those people who conform to views that we have expressed at one time or another in the past? 
The biggest resource of this digital city, namely its diversity, falls by the wayside on account of algorithms such as these. This gives rise to echo chambers in which, at the end of the day, people can no longer come into contact with other viewpoints at all – the “gated communities” of our global city, so to speak.

We must oppose such trends in the interests of our democracy – users, governments and companies alike. 

Ladies and gentlemen,
Our cooperation in the Freedom Online Coalition is a good example of how multilateralism can function also in this area today. 

Together, we are nothing more than a normative super power. We Europeans realised this at the very latest in the wake of the global response to the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

Let us use our meeting today and tomorrow, and also the Internet and Jurisdiction conference in June and the Internet Governance Forum in November 2019 with this in mind. 
In so doing, Berlin can inject impetus into an open internet underpinned by the rule of law. 
Into an internet of freedom and democracy. That is, ultimately, what we all seek. And I hope that we will be able to make a contribution to this at our conference today.

Permit me to offer you a warm welcome once again and to thank you for being here today.

Original text here.