John Baird and Carl Bildt on protecting digital freedoms

’We see openness as a virtue, others see it as a threat.’
By John Baird and Carl Bildt
Canada’s Foreign Minister John Baird speaks during an International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) Fullerton Lecture in Singapore August 4, 2014. REUTERS/Edgar Su (SINGAPORE - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR413XJ

At this hour, Maclean’s columnist and political editor Paul Wells is moderating a discussion here on “digital diplomacy” with Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and Carl Bildt, former prime minister of Sweden. For an idea of the issues Baird and Bildt are highlighting, this is a commentary they jointly provided to Maclean’s:

For many of the three billion people around the world who use the Internet, it’s a place to connect with friends, tweet, read news and share ideas. For others, though, the Internet is much more: the last bastion of protest against repression and authoritarian regimes.

As an open forum for individuals, the Internet acts as a powerful tool for free expression and dialogue. For this to continue, the Internet must remain free, open and secure. In Western countries such as Canada and Sweden, this openness can sometimes be taken for granted. But we all bear some responsibility for protecting these digital freedoms, because there can be no doubt that, while we see openness as a virtue, others see it as a threat.

Countries such as Iran crack down on the sharing of ideas by attempting to create an impermeable national internet, where online expression is monitored, regulated and, ultimately, suffocated within their borders. In Russia, President Vladimir Putin has accelerated restrictions on the Internet.

These governments are trying to repudiate long-held international norms, all in the name of security and fear. In other words, tools for freedom are being turned into tools of repression. In contrast, we believe that human rights are about individual freedoms. Governments that deny their citizens these rights and freedoms online are instinctively complementing the repression of their citizens in the non-virtual world.

It is important that we stand up for these freedoms. Canada’s training of citizen journalists and activists in places such as Syria, Egypt and Azerbaijan on how to safely use connection technologies is just one example of the type of investment that Western countries need to make to preserve online openness. Sweden has been supporting ways of penetrating the walls repressive regimes are putting up.

This isn’t just an issue for government and civil society; the private sector must play a role in protecting our online freedoms, too. After all, much of the infrastructure for the Internet, and most of the services it provides, is in their hands. Businesses also have a responsibility to protect their customers and the rights of those customers.

In the long term, this infrastructure is what we need to preserve if we are going to ensure that the Internet remains innovative, free and open for the benefits of all users. It is this multi-stakeholder approach to Internet governance that ensures that no one organization can effectively control the Internet. Preserving that model is the core mission of the Global Commission on Internet Governance that has been meeting in Ottawa this week.

These might sound like technical issues, but their impact is huge. In politics, we try to explain to people that, if you care about your taxes and the public services you use, you should get out and vote for the government you want. It’s the same principle for this. If you care about the day-to-day uses of the Internet, you should care about Internet governance.

We are steadfast in our conviction about a simple principle: that human rights should be enjoyed just as much online as they should be offline. Civil liberties can be safeguarded at the same time as we keep our societies safe. The key is trust.

When we see that trust has been violated by authoritarian regimes, those who believe in a free, open Internet must work with international partners in the private sector and civil society to ensure that citizens around the world are free to express their views online, unhindered and without retaliation. This is, after all, the essence of freedom and democracy.

John Baird is Canada’s foreign minister and Carl Bildt is Sweden’s former prime minister, who now chairs the Global Commission on Internet Governance.