There’s been a huge amount of interest in my announcement of a “no disconnect” strategy, to improve internet freedom around the world. In particular, there has been a lot of interest in my choice to invite Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg to assist me with this work.
Human Rights, including the right to communicate freely, runs through everything we do here in the EU. Online communications is no different.
So I am determined to use the wake-up call of the Arab Spring to increase the positive role of technology in the spread of democracy. In 1982 in Syria, the Hama massacre was hidden for months. But in 2011, video-sharing services helped us be aware of the regime’s abuses, and take action. While in Egypt, social media tools allowed people to by-pass state-run media. Everyone with a mobile could be a journalist.
We have been talking to experts, policymakers, and activists themselves about what we can do to support this.
We have called this work our “no disconnect” strategy, because when peaceful protests are being planned, connectivity is everything. Communications networks must stay switched on.
I spoke in more detail on the four strands of actions we need to take last Friday at a major international conference in The Hague: technological tools; education about opportunities and risks for activists; high-quality intelligence, and cooperation.
There are many ideas out there that could form the basis of a solution. For example, deploying “Internet survival packs” to activists: easy-to-use software or hardware packages which could help people to bypass censorship and counter surveillance. And we could stimulate 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. Equally, hosting support could help prohibited content reach its audience (blogs and videos for example).
I myself am working closely with Cathy Ashton and the External Action Service. Already in the area of media freedom, I have asked advice from a number of wise and experienced people, including, by the way, Herta Däubler-Gmelin, former German Minister of Justice. And I’m aware of the importance the European Parliament attaches to internet freedom as an essential part of our approach to protect human rights.
But we will need to involve all sectors, and include a lot of ideas. And that’s where Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg comes in.
As he himself has acknowledged, if anyone understands the power of the internet, and its power to hold authorities to account, it is Karl-Theodor. Anyone who has worked with Karl-Theodor – and I myself have done so closely when he was German Economics Minister – would recognise his great political abilities. But what I also admire in him is his fresh and international outlook. As someone who led two ministries relevant to this work – including being in charge of armed and security forces – I know he can have the essential conversations and new ideas that we need to help those who are suffering right now because their online (and offline) rights are not respected.
If you are wondering why Karl-Theodor and not someone else, I would say that I am looking for talent, not saints. I am asking him to do an important job; nothing more, nothing less. I live in the future, not the past.
I’ll report back when we have some progress to show for our efforts. Necessarily, some of what we do will have to be discreet. But equally, it is important that the initiative has a profile – to raise the awareness by all those who can contribute, and by all those who stand to benefit.