Digital freedoms – safe access to an open and uncensored Internet – should be among the key priorities in EU Foreign Policy. Today the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament endorsed the own initiative report of ALDE/D66 MEP Marietje Schaake, which puts pressure on the European Commission to integrate this strategy in its foreign policy. EU trade agreements, development and aid programs, accession negotiations and human rights dialogues should include conditionality clauses stipulating transparent safeguards preserving unrestricted access to the Internet and ensuring the free flow of information.
MEP Schaake welcomes the support from the Committee. “Digital freedoms are increasingly important enablers of fundamental rights, indispensable prerequisites for enjoying universal human rights such as freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, and for ensuring transparency and accountability in public life. New technologies empower people around the world. Technologies lead to revolutionary changes in society, the functioning of our democracies, economies, businesses, media, development and trade. But people can only take advantage of these opportunities if we also deal with the hazards of ICTs to human rights.”
MEP Schaake’s report A Digital Freedom Strategy in EU Foreign Policy contains many concrete measures. EU trade agreements, development and aid programs, accession negotiations and human rights dialogues should include conditionality clauses preserving unrestricted access to the Internet and ensuring the free flow of information. Digital collection of evidence and proliferation of images of human rights violations should be admissible under international (criminal) law as evidence in court proceedings. Furthermore, the EU should stop the export of dual-use items and technologies that are used as tools of repression through (mass) censorship, (mass) surveillance, tracing and tracking of human rights defenders, journalists, activists and dissidents. The EU can also help build and install basic ICT infrastructures in developing countries, provide access to knowledge and information and enable (online) education in remote areas by developing and providing cheap wirelessly connected tablets. To strengthen its credibility in promoting and defending digital freedoms around the world, EU should preserve high standards within its own borders. As in the Netherlands, all EU member states should codify the principle of net neutrality in appropriate regulation.
The struggle for human rights has moved online. Prisons are increasingly populated by dissidents confronted with their own internet and mobile communications, compromised by the authorities. Iran continues the building of a virtual bunker, which eventually will cut off the Iranians from the World Wide Web through the creation of a ‘Halal Internet’. Plans are presented to make anonymous blogging in China illegal. Last week, in Russia legislation was implemented allowing authorities to monitor all Internet traffic.
According to MEP Schaake Europe should take the lead in the worldwide promotion and protection of digital freedoms. “EU is the world’s largest trading block, but it is also a community of values. It should use its power and act as a global player. The global and borderless nature of the Internet requires new forms of international cooperation and governance with multiple stakeholders. Technologies should be used to promote transparency and freedom.” At the same time we must keep regulation of the Internet and ICTs at a minimal level. More and more countries and the UN are working on laws and regulations to increase state control. Schaake: “The strength of the Internet is that it grew organically, without over-regulation. My main goal is to update existing rules and policies on human rights and competition. For example, the EU urgently needs copyright reform in the digital age.”
MEP Schaake used an innovative way of writing her report. She posted a discussion paper online on the EU’s digital freedom strategy in its external actions, and invited various stakeholders to provide input through crowd-sourcing. Many internet users, NGO’s, governments and businesses did so. “This is one of the many opportunities of the Internet: bridging the gap between citizens and politics”, says Schaake.