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Keynote Address by President Toomas Hendrik Ilves at Panel Discussion „A Secure and Free Internet“, the UN Dag Hammarskjöld Library Auditorium


Ladies and Gentlemen,


We, the citizens of the world wide web of democracies, are connected by optical cables and computers, but most importantly, by values and the belief in the sanctity of the individual human spirit and freedom. Values that we believe to be universal.


When we talk about freedom and democracy we mean the whole package: free and fair elections, rule of law, independent judiciaries, respect for fundamental rights and freedoms. And a free Internet, in the modern digitized society, is just as much a part of all of that.


I am proud that Estonia has been ranked No 1 in the world in Internet freedom by Freedom House for three years in a row. As a member of the Freedom Online Coalition we are committed to protecting Internet Freedom in the world. And I am glad that the UN is dedicated to that goal as well, e.g. through the work of UN Group of Governmental Experts and the post 2015 Development Agenda.



The digitized world we live in today is so radically different from everything before it that we can talk about a revolution, similar to the complete change brought about by the invention of steam engine in the 18th century, the beginning of an industrial era. Or the Fordian revolution in the early 20th century that made motor cars available to the broad masses of people.


Just as mass production of motor cars brought along the need for a completely different network of roads and city infrastructures – we did not have overpasses before we had cars, we now need a digital infrastructure to support a society where everyone owns a PC and/or a mobile device through which they are connected to everyone else in the world.


Estonia has been a builder of those new roads. We understand that we also need new “traffic rules”: laws and regulations that make navigating the new roads safe and smooth. Cyber security is an issue we cannot take lightly, and we in Estonia have our own tough experience in cyber security issues, but it cannot be used as an excuse to limit free speech on the internet. The new rules must be built on the premise of existing rules, not at the expense of them.


In the new digital world, any country that wishes to be called a successful and modern society needs to understand that it must exist online as well as offline. Once public services and social interactions are online, democracy needs to get online as well.


Estonia has done pretty well in these fronts so far. Excellent – indeed, unprecedented – examples of e-governance have been available in Estonia for more than a decade. We now need to use our technological advancement to promote the values we believe in – freedom of speech, rule of law, protection of fundamental human rights. Offline, and online.


Ladies and Gentlemen,


As we go on to shape our digital future, we must keep in mind that ICT, e-governance, e-society is not just about technology. It is about a way of life, a vision.


Stewart Brand, the man who coined the term “personal computer”, declared before most of us had heard about computers or the Internet that “information wants to be free”. The developments of the digital world have been intimately connected to ideas of freedom; with the 1960s hippie movement, but also with the Enlightenment, all based on the idea that ideas must be able to travel freely. The idea of freedom, and of science in the service of mankind. ICT is born from a combination of expanded consciousness, of science and personal freedom.


Thus we cannot separate the idea of ICT and the idea of freedom. However, the existent technology can be used also to suppress freedom. Therefore it is crucial how the technologies we have developed are used. It is our responsibility to make sure that the tools we create contribute to the freedom and prosperity of the world, not vice versa. As the early tech pioneers said: “Technology is liberating if you make it so.”


Not everyone wants to do that. ICT is a powerful tool not just in the hands of democracies, but also authoritarian rulers. The cyber world offers endless opportunities to those who are willing to abuse it. It can be used to follow people and limit their freedom of speech, to uncover, reveal and ultimately to persecute dissidents.


In this, authoritarian states, those who do not respect fundamental freedoms, are in a privileged position. To use ICT to enhance democracy is much more of an intellectual and political challenge.


Dear friends,


Promotion of freedom in the world has been directed against the authoritarians’ usurpation of the Westphalian argument of non-interference in the internal affairs of countries. The basis of the 1648 Peace of Westphalia was Cuius regio, eius religio, whose realm, his religion, and that the rule determined the ideology of the nation state.


Up to the internet age, the Westphalian system and the principle of the inviolability of borders protected regimes. A ruler could do as he wished, so long as he stayed in his own borders.


Cyberspace has no borders. Countries face the import of potentially disruptive liberal ideas of open societies. The means of expression, transparency and accountability empowered by a Google search, a YouTube video, or a tweet, and these are direct threats to a restrictive political system; the World Wide Web turns them into domestic threats to the regime. So, these regimes must rely on filtering and blocking, using sophisticated monitoring and filtering software while co-opting internet companies to identify and round up dissidents who tweet or post on Facebook. When these methods fail, they cut off the internet, as the Mubarak regime did in Egypt.


We must choose between two paths – either we can change the nature of the internet by acceding to a Westphalian regulatory structure of internet governance, or we can change the world.


The enemies of open society prefer the former, the imposition of a regulatory system. Authoritarian regimes fear the West is attempting to orchestrate an Arab Spring or an Orange Revolution. This is why illiberal states want to develop new regulations for the internet, using international organizations to put another brick in the wall, expanding their own Westphalian space to our common World Wide Web. This would be sovereignty on their terms, disabling the freedom and sovereignty of our citizens.


Last December, the International Telecoms Union held its first world conference since 1988. It did not explicitly take a stand on Internet regulations, but there were calls to limit free expression as we know it on the web today. The authoritarians have presented proposals whose realisation would undermine the current multi-stakeholder model of the internet, replacing it with a scheme that allows them to expand their control of their own populations and economies, extending it to undermine the freedom and openness we value today.


They claim that sovereignty in cyberspace is necessary to rein in cybercrime and cyber-terrorism – although the same countries have not signed the Budapest convention, which is ironic. The Freedom Online Coalition opposes all attempts to limit free expression in any, but especially in digital form – this is not the way to fight cyber crime.


We must also be honest with ourselves and admit that recent developments regarding purported surveillance by the NSA only make the defense of an open internet more difficult. These are being used by governments to argue for the Westphalization of the web. I call upon the countries of the Freedom Online Coalition to take up this challenge and provide additional arguments to keep the Internet free.


The battle between the free and regulated Internet will go on for years. We now take the borderless Internet for granted, but it is not impossible that all things existing in the physical world of states also will be created online – including state borders, visas, alliances or “online spheres of influence”.


We cannot ignore that the authoritarians want to encroach on the territory of the free. They want to force their authoritarianism on us. It’s our task not to let them do it.


Ladies and Gentlemen,


We plan to host a Freedom Online Coalition ministerial meeting next Spring in Estonia, to discuss all these issues and to provide a basis for the coalition and all like-minded parties on how to proceed, to guarantee internet security and freedom in the future.


A free and secure internet is possible, as we in Estonia have found. We hope that the international community will focus on solutions at the Freedom Online Coalition in Tallinn.


The United nations can play a role in promoting dialogue among Member States on Internet freedom and security, and in defending Internet Freedom as part of its Human Rights agenda.


We in Estonia highly appreciate the efforts of UNGGE (UN Group of Governmental Experts) to reach consensus on developments in the field of information and telecommunications in the context of international security. Through these discussions, Estonia has  sought to achieve a common understanding on cyber issues; on the need to promote stability, transparency, and confidence in cyberspace. I am glad the Group reaffirmed the importance of an open and accessible cyberspace; and it importantly affirmed that international law, especially the UN Charter, is essential in promoting an open, secure and accessible cyberspace.


We are also glad to see that the UN post 2015 Development Agenda recognises the importance or new technologies and e-services, and especially the importance of maintaining the current architecture of the Internet, with its open standards and decentralized administration.


We believe as well that international human rights law needs to be reaffirmed and restated for the digital age. The last update on the right to privacy dates to 1988. It is crucial that the principles of the right to privacy that we know offline remain the same online as well.


Discussing the dilemma of privacy and security, we need to work to achieve the right balance between open access and protection of rights and privacy. Privacy and security do not have to contradict each other; indeed, secure online interactions, enabled by a secure online identity, is a precondition for full internet freedom.


It is the task of the government to guarantee the online privacy and security of its citizens, it is the Lockean contract in the Internet age. In Estonia, our government has done that. We encourage others to follow suit.


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