Speech by Minister for Foreign Affairs Margot Wallström at the Stockholm Internet Forum 2019
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It is an honour to start off the conversation today at the 2019 Stockholm Internet Forum. I hope that the next few days will give you all a chance to discuss and form new partnerships.
Personally, I always find true inspiration when meeting such driven persons as all of you here today – you are the ones who drive democracy forward. I’m thinking not least of the civil society, NGOs, human rights defenders and all of you that make up the fundamental building blocks of what is democracy. Without your daily struggle democratic progress would not be possible.
This year’s theme, shrinking democratic space online, is very timely to say the least.
I would like to address three issues today:
First, global trends
Second, threats and hate on the internet
and last, Sweden’s role in meeting these challenges.
First, an unfortunate global trend that we see is that democracy is in decline,
Democratic principles and processes are being undermined, the rule of law scorned and human rights increasingly restricted and called into question.
Today, for the first time in over 40 years, more people are living in countries with authoritarian tendencies than in countries making democratic progress.
It is becoming more and more difficult for civil society, human rights defenders and media actors – democracy’s voice bearers – to do their work. Those who speak out against unjust laws and government practices, challenge public opinion or those in power, and demand justice, equality, dignity and freedom, are being increasingly targeted. Most persons spend a increasing part of their lives online. The impact of the internet and social media has led to citizens being better informed and contributed towards a growing and more independent civil society in many places. Of course this also brings with it new challenges that I will return to later in this speech. Despite this, data shows that in 2018, global internet freedom declined for the eighth consecutive year.
Governments have censored information of public interest, state authorities have jailed more users for their online writing, and cyber-surveillance power has increased as bans on encryption and anonymity tools have become more common.
Freedom House reports that between June 2017 and May 2018, 71 % of all people with access to internet lived in countries where posting content on political, social, or religious issues could get you arrested.
In many contexts women have little if any access to public spaces, in these situations the internet is sometimes one of few areas accessible to women. But the shrinking democratic space is also affecting women’s opportunities to access, participate and contribute through the internet and is thereby reinforcing the gender digital divide.
Second, I would like to address threats and hate on the internet,
The online climate for those exercising their right to freedom of expression online, such as human rights defenders and bloggers, is worsening. The online hatred and threats of violence are increasing in frequency and sophistication, with women and LGBT persons being particularly exposed. But increasingly also towards politicians or political activists. Especially women candidates who are now frequently verbally attacked online. This is carried out not only by individuals, but also by state actors.
Hate, threats and violence against, and even killings of journalists in particular is a growing problem. According to Reporters Without Borders, 80 journalists were killed in the line of duty in 2018 – the deadliest year on record.
We can never accept threats and hatred being directed at journalists for merely doing their job. We can never accept that women journalists are often particularly subjected to threats and harassment just because they are women. We cannot stand idly by as organised online hate grows. When these voices are threatened, we must do everything in our power to protect them and empower them.
The Internet cannot be a place where hate campaigns and disinformation take over the flow on our social media. We together with social media actors have a common responsibility to make sure that our public debate is not ruined by extreme groups.
Thirdly, and lastly, I want to explain how the Swedish government is addressing these issues,
Despite all the challenges, there is a way forward.
We see a growing global understanding of the need to ensure privacy online. We see a growing political debate online, in countries where this was not possible offline.
Agenda 2030 and development goal 16 provide an excellent opportunity to counter the shrinking democratic space, online as well as offline.
The Freedom Online Coalition and its Advisory Network is one important actor in this joint effort, and I know that many of you are represented here today.
The importance of dialogue between stakeholders has never been more critical. This is why we argue that internet governance needs a multi-stakeholder system, where all stakeholders from governments to industry and civil society, are included.
As a response to the challenges democracy is facing globally, the Swedish government has also launched a drive for democracy. It will be reflected in all areas of Swedish foreign policy, including in our development cooperation.
We intend to increase the democracy assistance and stand up for democracy’s defenders and institutions, not least civil society. We will continue to support and protect human rights defenders, journalists, political activists, bloggers, academics and artists.
We will also support independent journalism and a pluralistic media environment, in order to strengthen democratic dialogue and counter disinformation and propaganda.
Sweden will continue to ensure a gender sensitive approach, striving for gender equality, through our feminist foreign policy and development cooperation. Democracy is not possible if half the population are not fully included.
Thanks to the internet, human rights are more widely known worldwide than ever before. The internet’s capacity to bring people and politicians closer to one another must not be weakened, and we must stay on the task to bring everyone online.
Digitization gives us great opportunities. But the development also leads to risks and vulnerabilities. We must further strengthen both safety thinking and preventative protection. Human rights organizations, news agencies, companies, authorities and other organizations need to integrate information and cyber security as a natural part of their work. International cooperation on cyber security, both within the EU and in other international bodies, needs to be strengthened with the goal of a global, accessible, open and robust internet that is characterized by freedom and respect for human rights.
All around the world and every day human rights defenders, journalists, bloggers, actors, authors and other voices for democracy continue to beat the odds. As challenges mount we cannot forget to celebrate their successes. And we must continue supporting and defending them.
By doing this we can turn the tide and make sure that democracy and freedom of expression will carry us further into the 21st century, and that the internet does not succumb to hate and human rights abuse but instead becomes a place of debate and true dialogue.