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Internet issues

Speech by Minister Mrs. Jytte Hilden at the Ministerial Conference in Bonn 6-8 July 1997

Internet as a vehicle for human rights

As we all know, the first cornerstone of the information society was laid down here in Germany.

It happened 500 years ago by the development of book printing. For the men in power it raised concerns.

On one hand it made distribution of their views more efficient through printing of the one book that in their opinion was worth reading.

On the other hand it made it possible for ordinary people to own - or even print - other books.

Books that might contain thoughts that did not accord with the opinions of the elite. Books that might even contain thoughts that were regarded illegal.

Today we see the development of the printing machine as an important turning point in the development of democracy and human rights in Europe.

And we can only shake our head at the attempts to control or prevent the spread of this technology.

I wonder what people will think of our discussions of the Internet 50 years - or even 10 years - from now?

Here we are with a media that for the first time in history gives practical reality to freedom of expression and access to information.

A media by which ordinary people can:

  • address the whole world at very low cost
  • access information previously only available to the elite.

A media that escapes the attempts from government or others to control the flow of information.

And what was the reaction of the western democracies on this new media.

The first reaction was moral panic! Governments demanding that the flow of information on the Internet had to be controlled.

Governments wishing to regulate the content on Internet. Surely the background for this reaction was very serious.

Surely no-one can have sympathy with the distribution of child pornography or racism on the Internet.

And surely it makes a mother think twice when there is access to hard core pornography from the nursery.

But it should not lead us into regulations that will do more harm than good.

With the resolution from the EU-Council in autumn 1996 this issue was settled in Europe.

Everybody in Europe now agree that we have to discriminate between content that is illegal and content that might offend people.

  • That illegal content should be handled by the legal system - the police and the courts
  • That offensive content should be dealt with by the user on the background of the moral values of the individual.

Everybody in Europe agree that what is illegal off-line should also be illegal on-line - no more no less.

Recent developments indicate that also in other parts of the western democracies they are ready to subscribe to these views.

A development that we should warmly welcome in Europe.

But now this is settled it must be time to change the agenda for the discussion of the Internet.

From dealing with the possible problems raised by the Internet we must turn to the opportunities given by the Net.

Most important we should discuss how this new media can tribute to the development of human rights and democracy.

Some people have already taken up this subject.

And they don't stick to discussions. In all parts of the world human rights organisations are actively using the Internet in their struggle for human rights and democracy.

In Namibia the Media Institute of Southern Africa actively uses the Internet to gather information of violations of the freedom of expression in Africa and distribute it to media and governments in the rest of the world.

In Mexico the zapatists uses the Internet to spread their messages to the world avoiding the filtering of government or the big press agencies.

For these organisations the uncontrollable Internet is an invaluable tool in their struggle for democracy and human rights. But also in our part of the world we should consider how the Internet will influence democracy and human rights.

First for all we should ensure that the potential of the Internet to promote democracy is exploited through:

  • access to public information on the Net
  • access by the individual to personal data registered by the government

But more important we must consider whether the present formulation of the basic human rights are adequate for the information society or if we need a redrafting?

How should we interpret freedom of expression when a major part of our communication is conducted over the Internet?

How should we interpret the right to access information when more and more information is available only on the Internet?

How should we interpret the right to privacy on a network where personal data are so easily exposed?

Should access to the Net be a basic human right? Should the education of users be an obligation for the government in a democratic society?

And can we restrict the access to cryptography?

These are the questions that should be on the new agenda for the discussions of the Internet.

And when dealing with this agenda we should keep the global perspective in mind. Internet can be a vehicle for human rights and democracy.

Lets not put at spoke in the wheel.


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