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Digital Authoritarianism

Anförande i Bryssel, Belgien

I most warmly welcome this opportunity to address what I consider one of the most important issues of our time right here in Brussels. Why would I consider this one of the most important issues of our time?

We are all aware of the breathtaking development of the Internet during the past few decades. As then Prime Minister of my country in 1994 I tried to communicate through email with the then President of the United States, Bill Clinton.

And after some phone calls to his White House staff it actually worked. It was a first on that level and was seen as very exotic indeed. Remember, this was the year when the first Internet browser appeared to the general public.

Today nearly half of the population of the world is connected to the Internet one way or another. In Stockholm the demand for bandwidth for mobile data communication doubles every six months.

While there were many more Internet users in Europe than in Asia only half a decade ago, there are now three times as many in Asia as here in Europe.

But breathtaking as this revolution in connectivity and communication has been, I am convinced that we have only seen the beginning. We are very rapidly entering into a world of hyper connectivity where science fiction will continue to be turned into daily reality for growing millions and billions around the world.

Gradually almost everything we do will be more or less dependent on the security, stability and freedom of what we might refer to as cyberspace. Certainly economy and commerce. Obviously the free flow of information. Clearly the smooth operating of the global financial system. Increasingly our critical infrastructure, our health systems as well as our governments. You name it - Internet will be there in one way or the another.

The history of the development of the net is essentially the history of individuals across the world coming together and setting up, developing and self-regulating this remarkably resilient, flexible and versatile system. And there is no doubt that its development has been vastly facilitated by the open, multi-stakeholder and self- regulating approach that has characterized it so far.

I belong to those who believe that we should seek to preserve this as far as we can. It has worked extremely well so far - and there is no reason why it should not in the years to come.

But when this is said I will also argue for far more farsighted policies when it comes to both the freedom and the security if the net. Both are increasingly important, both are related to each and both will require far more of political attention than what they have received so far.

And this applies to the European Union as well. I believe that we should start working on an EU International Strategy for Cyberspace.

The US just published its first strategy on these issues. But there is a clear need for a European policy on these important issues as well. We must not wait.

We all know that an increasing number of governments are increasingly seeking to control the net and limit the freedom of and the freedom on the net.

Your recent report - which is well worth reading - highlights primarily the practices of China. And there is little doubt that China belongs to the world leaders in this field. But the recent report by Freedom House on Freedom on the Net gives this certainly not exhaustive list of countries that have more or less elaborate restrictions in these respects: Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Belarus, Burma, China, Cuba, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkey, Venezuela, Vietnam and - surprise, surprise - Zimbabwe.

The fact that these states are seeking to control the net in different ways is a powerful contribution to the ongoing debate in whether the development of the Internet leads to more of authoritarianism or more of scope for liberal values and interests.

And it was certainly no coincidence that the Mubarak regime in its dying days cut off Egypt almost totally from the Internet, or that access today is virtually impossible in Tripoli or Damascus. Indeed, a dying dictatorship these days is defined by its attempts to desperately destroy the Internet.

We, in the Swedish Government, have taken a number of initiatives in order to promote human rights on the Internet. Together with - Open Society Initiative, OSI, we sponsored the work of Frank la Rue preparing a report on Freedom of Expression on the Internet to the Human Rights Council.

The report will be presented on the 3 of June and related to that, we will arrange a side-event together with a South African NGO, Association for Progressive Communication (APC) with participants from a number of different countries to follow up the conclusions of the report. ASEM-framework in Seoul dealing with the specific topic of Human Rights on the Internet. This is of course of particular interest since it involves the Asian countries in the dialogue.

dealing with the specific topic of Human Rights on the Internet. This is of course of particular interest since it involves the Asian countries in the dialogue.

But we also give direct support to those Non-Governmental Organizations' who work to liberate the net from such things as filtering and the use of firewalls to restrict the fundamental rights. Today we support activities in somewhere between 10 and 20 countries all over the world, paying a special interest to countries in the Middle East.

In a special initiative from beginning of 2011 we invited NGO:s to come up with new ideas and projects in order to strengthen freedom of the Net. The response was great and a substantial contribution from the Swedish Government is now in the pipeline. These initiatives are all based on our strong belief that freedom of the net should be of paramount importance from a broad and all embracing perspective that includes traditional human rights as well as overall development.

If you want to develop open societies and fight poverty in the developing world, it is imperative to invest in ICTs and direct those investments not only to the hardware and the technical systems but to address skills and the need for institutional reforms as well.

Institutional backwardness that manifests itself in all sorts of repressive actions, with the aim of controlling and restricting the free flow of information and the ways people communicate with each other, will sooner rather than later hamper growth and development.

It is therefore vital to safeguard freedom of the net acknowledging that internet is and should be a key instrument for reaching long term economic and social goals.

I am saying this with the latest development in the countries of Middle East and North Africa in mind. Their economic systems have often been almost as closed as their political systems, they have paid the price for this in terms of slow growth.

Recently there have been calls for some type of new Marshall Plan to help the Arab economies to overcome the challenges they are facing. But money alone will not help. In some cases, the lack of money is hardly the issue.

It's a question of liberalizing and opening up their economies. Of truly joining the world of communication and accelerating globalization. We must obviously give these countries and the wider region the assistance required to build the institutions of representative government, establish the rule of law, create political parties able to freely contest free elections - and in many other respects.

But if this does not go hand in hand with a profound commitment to opening up their economies I fear it might all fail a few years down. Still some of the Asian countries implement policies vis-a-vis the internet and social media that are not compatible with sustained growth in an increasingly competitive and global ICT environment.

I do not think that it affects Chinese growth that much if I am not allowed to publish my blog when I visit Beijing. But I do believe it will be a problem for Chinese companies to penetrate world markets if the government allows China to isolate itself from the rest of the global digital community.

In the long run such a policy will also lead to political unrest and even stronger demands for genuine political reforms. Globalization is the megatrend of our age. I belong to those who are convinced that globalization is paving the way for a better world. It is not only the hundreds and hundreds of millions of people who are given the opportunity to leave poverty behind - and the dramatic increase in life expectancy and quality of life that we can witness - that speak so clearly in favor of an open world and an open world economy.

It is also the fact that an open world and an open world economy as we have seen lately gradually break down barriers, penetrate prejudices, disrupt dictatorships and set people and nations free.

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