Meeting of the Alliance for Multilateralism

The Alliance for Multilateralism is a network of Foreign Ministers committed to promoting a law-based international order. The Alliance meeting on digital governance aimed to foster the necessary dialogue between states, relevant international organizations, businesses, and civil society. The development of digital technology has a wide array of consequences in the economic and technological fields but also in the social and political fields. This meeting highlighted a few concrete initiatives regarding Internet governance, cybersecurity and speakers discussed whether and how to address disinformation and extremist, illegal and harmful content through regulation.

Date : 12 November 2019

Paris, France – Grande Halle de La Villette, Auditorium

Watch the full debate

Speakers

  • Moderator: Marietje Schaake, President, Cyber Peace Institute
  • Stef Blok, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Netherlands
  • Christophe Deloire, Secretary-General, Reporters Without Borders
  • Pekka Haavisto, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Finland
  • Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, Minister of External Affairs, India
  • Julian King, European Commissioner for the Security Union, European Commission
  • Jeppe Kofod, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Denmark
  • Jean-Yves Le Drian, Minister of Foreign Affairs, France
  • Heiko Maas, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Germany
  • Cédric O, Secretary of State for the Digital Sector, France
  • Nicolas Petrovic, President & Director General, Siemens France
  • Han Soekjoo, President, Naver France
  • Martin Tisné, Managing Director, Luminate
  • Jimmy Wales, Founder, Wikipedia

Key takeaways of the discussion

  • The need for a clear legal framework was highlighted to manage abuse of social media and the spread of political disinformation. It was generally agreed upon that digitalization issues require multilateral and private sector engagement, a dialogue with all stakeholders, rather than by states alone.
  • Minister Jaishankar reminded that digital technologies have been a driver of economic, social, political and behavioral transformation, and that it is important not to forget they operate in national boundaries but have a borderless reach, and that they offer limitless opportunities, but also expose us to uncharted territory of considerable challenges. He said “we need to arrive at a global understanding if not a global regulation in order that cyberspace remains open, safe and secure. And for this, multilateralism is more essential than ever before.”
  • Ministers Maas and Blok underlined that although rules-based international order has brought unprecedented peace and prosperity, it needs to be updated to be more inclusive, representative and effective. Multilateralism was traditionally something for governments, but in the digital age we have managed to involve more people, working to build a system that works for governments and private companies while recognizing the importance of freedom of speech.
  • Minister Cédric O and Martin Tisné added that if public institutions are not catching up fast enough with the world, they will be perceived as no longer relevant, and people will vote or resort to more extreme solutions. There is a need to find a middle ground between an Internet that is dominated by private companies and one that is dominated by governments.
  • Minister Le Drian declared that citizens have a right to privacy, companies have a right to clear rules, and democracies depend on information security. He specified that “digitalization issues require multilateral and private sector engagement while avoiding two pitfalls – an ungoverned laissez-faire approach, and authoritarianism.”
  • Mr. Deloire reminded the audience that the Declaration on Information and Democracy introduced by Reporters Without Borders at the Paris Peace Forum in 2018 is a great example of international cooperation introducing a set of safeguards that fit the modern landscape.
  • Mr. Tisné argued that regulation should require social media and other companies to separate their advertising sales and editorial functions. The core problem is that a large amount of online content is made available through a small number of companies who profit from the advertising revenue that inflammatory and sensational content generates. Investing in civic and digital literacy is but a medium-term approach. A systemic perspective is also needed which involves focusing on the content, but also competition, reinventing anti-trust and data-privacy laws which now focus on the individual and not the societal impact that these technologies are having on our societies and our democracies.
  • Minister Kofod added that we must consider bringing the tech industry closer to governments and rethinking alliances with non-state partners so that innovation benefits all and solves global challenges, defending democracy, human rights and international order. According to Cédric O: “When you ask social networks to better regulate their content, you are a raising a host of legal issues, because you are asking a private actor to take on a role that has traditionally been played by public authorities.”
  • Jimmy Wales warned that over-regulation by democratic countries could give cover to authoritarian regimes adopting a language about reducing criminality and extremism in their justifications for online censorship. As such, rhetoric around regulation and control can easily be misused and misapplied. Content moderation is indeed extremely difficult to scale and requires great caution as freedom of expression is important. Wales also pointed to Wikipedia’s non-profit, user-led model as effective for providing accurate, non-inflammatory information.
  • Minister Haavisto stressed that “it is necessary to accept that democracies are inherently vulnerable to disinformation, but this does not mean that we have to compromise our democracy in order to fight disinformation.”
  • Commissioner King shared his hopes to produce, with colleagues, the first European legislation requiring companies to remove objectionable and terrorist content within an hour of it being identified by judicial and legal authorities. Effective independent scrutiny (and not censorship) on the provenance of political content will help to deal with the spread of political disinformation, so everyone can form a judgement about it.
  • According to Han Soekjoo, “the Internet is like a television that just has one channel.” The role and subsistence of local Internet companies is relevant to ensure the culture and diversity of every country are reflected but it is also wrought with legal complexity. 

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