Speech by Federal Chancellor Dr Angela Merkel opening the 14th Annual Meeting of the Internet Governance Forum in Berlin on 26 November 2019

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Secretary-General Guterres, António,
Members of Parliament from around the world,
Distinguished guests,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Welcome to Berlin! I and the entire Federal Government are pleased that you have made your way here, bringing your ideas for the future of the internet. Thank you very much for coming!

What the Secretary-General of the United Nations said a few moments ago is quite correct: he was an electrical engineer, and I was a physicist, and then we took a bit of a detour. True. But perhaps it’s no bad thing for technical developments in our age if there are a few politicians who know something about technology – though in my case only the basics remain; doubtless it’s different for António – and who are working together to understand our world.

This is already the 14th Annual Meeting of the United Nations Internet Governance Forum, but this is the first time it has been held here in Germany. Particularly as this year’s host, but also even after this conference week ends, we want to help revitalise and shape the global exchange about values and rules on the internet.

It is, after all, becoming more and more important for all of us to join together to discuss how we want to shape and use the internet of the future. When I say “all of us”, I mean policymakers and civil society, business and the scientific community. “All of us” also means that all countries need to work together. That is the principle underlying multilateralism. That is the principle on which the United Nations builds. And that is also the basis from which we must steer new technological developments.

That is precisely what makes the IGF so valuable. It provides a forum where internet governance actors from all over the world can discuss their experiences and ideas. Basically, this is where the analogue and digital worlds melt into one. “One World. One Net. One Vision.” This year’s slogan sums it up neatly: we want to arrive at a shared understanding of what the internet of the future should look like. What values, principles and rules do we want to take with us from our analogue world to the digital world? What processes and procedures will we need in doing so?

The one value which has particularly accelerated the internet’s triumph is this: freedom. We know that freedom is never something that can be taken for granted; we have to keep on fighting for it and defending it. Together we constantly have to clarify where and how freedom needs to be protected, was freedom means in concrete terms, and also where its boundaries lie – in other words, what is and is not allowed when fundamental rights of others, for instance children, have to be upheld or if fundamental rights of others are violated. That is where the boundaries of freedom lie.

This month in particular, as we saw in the introductory film, we Germans have been reflecting and talking a great deal about just what freedom means for our country. The Berlin Wall fell 30 years ago, in November 1989. The strong desire for freedom felt by the people in the GDR and our neighbours in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and the three Baltic states could no longer be suppressed by coercive state measures.

Here in Berlin you can see very clearly what the division of Germany and Europe meant for the people. One of the former border crossing points between East and West Berlin is just a few hundred metres away from here. And as you make your way into this venue, you can see a few pieces of the Wall, each of them weighing tonnes. But freedom carried and still carries much more weight.

You may be interested to know that I did my scientific work just a few hundred metres from here, in the eastern part of Berlin. I never saw the Sonnenallee from this side, but my workplace was not far from here.

The Wall and the Iron Curtain were torn down 30 years ago. The people’s striving for freedom and self-determination had prevailed. Our country and also our European continent could finally grow together again. Freedom of travel, freedom of the press, freedom of opinion, freedom to choose an occupation, the right to free development of the personality: all these and other fundamental rights would now apply in Europe again.

Freedom and the hope of progress for all – that was also the vision of the inventor of the internet 50 years ago and of the World Wide Web 30 years ago. And some of the inventors are here with us today. The technology of the internet was developed in such a way that it can transcend territorial borders, can easily be used in all corners of the globe, and can link all human beings. There are now four billion internet users. António Guterres has pointed out how much faster this process evolved than printing and the spread of books did. By 2030, so in just over ten years, the figure is expected to be seven billion.

We are all benefiting from this global connectivity. People from very different countries and cultures are meeting across perceived analogue barriers – barriers created by politics, religion or social status. The truth is that the internet has long since reached every aspect of our daily lives – at least in the case of those who use it. Fewer and fewer people can imagine communicating, working or shopping without using the internet at all. And just as we naturally and unthinkingly use the internet round the clock, so we naturally and unthinkingly regard it as a global network in which geographical distance is now largely irrelevant. Flows of data and information connect cities, countries and continents.

It is interesting that geographical distances, for instance that need to be covered with a network of underwater cables, do in fact still play a role when it comes to the actual technology. Many of the data links between North and South America go via the cable landing point in Fortaleza, Brazil. The data flow between Europe and Asia goes via underwater cables in the Suez Canal. A whole cluster of cables linking the Asia-Pacific region make landfall in Singapore. Another example is internet exchange points, where internet providers link up with the global network, making internet access possible. Three of the biggest internet exchanges are in Europe – in Frankfurt, Amsterdam and London. They will keep us connected even after the United Kingdom has left the European Union.

This shared internet infrastructure has become a cornerstone of the global economy. It is of vital importance for sustainable development and innovation worldwide. Billions of people can make their views and ideas known on the internet. They can communicate, exchange information and compare experiences. The internet is home to democratic debate and political opinion-forming – for good and not so good, because, as the Secretary-General also pointed out, there are some people who stay in their own bubble and no longer engage at all with anyone who takes a different view. This is one of the challenges the internet presents us with.

But there are other reasons, too, why a free and open internet and the internet’s many decentralised structures are a thorn in the side of some people. Non‑democratic states and their governments are interfering with the freedoms the internet creates. They are trying to push through their own or national interests and, to this end, to seal their nets off from the global internet. Even some private companies are investing in their own, closed-off infrastructures. This raises the danger that global companies might build up parallel worlds – with their own rules and standards – which they will then try to impose on others via international bodies.

This is a very difficult topic. I understand that this forum wants to confront precisely this issue. Because, if I can put it this way, we have to clarify what we mean when, on the one hand, we want to retain our digital sovereignty but, on the other, we want to act multilaterally, and not shut ourselves off. Of course digital sovereignty is very important. But it may be that we all have come to understand something different by that, even though we are using the same term. As I understand it, digital sovereignty does not mean protectionism, or that state authorities say what information can be disseminated – censorship, in other words; rather, it describes the ability both of individuals and of society to shape the digital transformation in a self-determined way.

So, in the digital world as elsewhere, technological innovation has to be in the service of humanity, not the other way around. Having found success with the social market economy system, we in Germany know that technological innovations do not just happen, that companies do not simply evolve automatically, but that they always need parameters and guidelines. That was the case in the industrial revolution, and it will need to be the same in the internet age.

In other words, we need sovereignty over what happens. And so, if we are convinced that isolationism is not an expression of sovereignty, but that we have to base our actions on a shared understanding and shared values, then precisely that – a commitment to a shared, free, open and secure global internet – is in fact an expression of sovereignty.

Because what would the consequences be if we went down the road of isolationism? To my mind, the consequences of an increasingly fragmented internet can never be good. They can be many and varied, but never good. The global infrastructure could become unstable and vulnerable to attack. There would be more surveillance. The state would increasingly filter and censor information. Perhaps the internet and mobile phone networks would even be shut down in order to prevent the people from communicating.

This means that an attack on internet connectivity, the foundation for a free and open internet, has become a dangerous political instrument. Many people have first-hand experience of what that’s like. Attacks like this can deprive the people of their fundamental rights to information and communication. This turns the idea underlying the internet, the idea of its inventors, completely on its head. And so we should all be determined to protect the heart of the internet as a global public good. We can only do that if we think again about the governance structures of this global network that links us all.

But how can we counter the efforts of individual states to split off from the free internet or shape it on their own? I believe we can do so by realising that just as the strength of networks is measured by the number of their users, so we need the efforts of many to preserve a cross-border, decentralised internet. In other words: by realising that we have to act multilaterally. Only in this way can we develop a shared, cross-border understanding and appreciation of the value of a free internet. And so I warmly welcome the UN Secretary-General’s announcement that he will be appointing an envoy for these talks, who will have his full confidence.

During Germany’s G20 Presidency in 2017 we established a “digital strand” in the G20. Of course we are aware that the G20 states do not represent the entire world. But it would already be a big step forward if agreement on this important issue could be reached within that group. For this reason, I am pleased that we have got important commitments from the G20 states, including on global connectivity and on international standards. How did we manage to do this? Mainly because we also involved civil society and the business community. Governments alone cannot succeed. That is why I find it so important that civil society and business are always involved in the G20 process – especially, as António Guterres pointed out, women, who risk being left behind in the new value chains created by the internet.

So, the internet cannot and must not be shaped by states and governments alone. Because the fundamental issues surrounding the internet ultimately affect each and every one of us. That’s why we need a comprehensive dialogue and a multi-stakeholder approach, as we say these days – in other words, exactly the approach taken by the IGF. And so I am very grateful that you have gathered here in Berlin to present your view of matters. Of course this is a new approach. The traditional multilateral structures only know cooperation between governments. But I don’t believe that alone is enough nowadays. That is why we have to keep on pushing this broad-based approach.

If we can use the internet globally or if we want to use the internet globally, then we also have to think globally. The internet affects everyone, even people with no access to it. And so we have to improve internet access and equal participation in the digital transformation. The question of inclusion is one of the topics you will be discussing intensively over the next few days. I was very happy to learn, at a Federal Government closed meeting a few days ago, that there are plans to create a comprehensive digital market in Africa, that there is a digital commissioner, and that within the African Union the intention is not only to engage in free trade in the traditional sense but also to focus on digital development, one element being inclusive internet access.

António Guterres, you have worked with international experts from the fields of policymaking, business, academia and civil society to produce a report on digital cooperation. Thanks to your proposals for new approaches to shaping the common digital future, an important debate is gathering pace. In talking about internet governance, we must first agree on values. We must agree on how to protect human rights, democracy and the rule of law in the digital age, and on how to strengthen equal participation and security on the net, as well as confidence in the net.

Of course we will have to blaze new trails. Normally, you see, we are used to translating everything we agree in international treaties or agreements into national legislation. This time, however, more is needed. The business community needs to be involved, and so do the people – and of course this cannot be ensured through laws alone. The challenge is considerable. The digital transformation poses fundamental questions for our societies. By no means everything that is feasible online or technically possible is ethically desirable. That is something, by the way, that we know even from the pre-digital world. These are questions we will have to discuss in depth, particularly with an eye to artificial intelligence.

We will have to talk not only about what we want, but also about what we don’t want. For example, if I may: there are some in the community who would rather talk about what is possible than about what we do not want to do with the new technical possibilities. Even though it is not about interfering with the internet, but about the principle that technology is there to serve the people.

All this can only work if everyone works together: governments, international organisations and formats, and civil society, must be equally involved in discussions. If we are honest, and looking just at my own country, then it has to be said that we have not yet reached consensus among all sides. We saw this in the debate on copyright in the European Union, for instance, and also in connection with the General Data Protection Regulation. So there are a great number of things still the subject of much heated debate.

That is why we must be prepared to organise new opportunities for participation in which every voice is heard and every voice is equal. In other words, we need real cooperation. We also need discourse skills. Entrenching ourselves in internet bubbles where our own viewpoint holds sway is definitely not the way to solve the problems.

It is in this spirit that the Internet Governance Forum here in Berlin is breaking new ground. I regard it as an important signal that parliamentarians from all over the world have travelled to Berlin in response to an initiative by Federal Economic Affairs Minister Peter Altmaier. In democratic terms, too, this is a huge boon.

Moreover, we, the German Government, never regard the digital transformation as something to be dealt with at national level; rather, we always also think on a European level. Because Europe’s ideas can make a major contribution to the shared global vision of the future of the internet.

Overall, though, reshaping internet governance is of course a matter that will require global efforts. It will require states and stakeholders to stand shoulder to shoulder. Germany is ready to help shape a new global internet policy under the auspices of the United Nations. We are convinced that the United Nations and the IGF have a key role to play in bringing about a global consensus in favour of an open, free and decentralised internet.

On that note, ladies and gentlemen, I wish you every success here at the Internet Governance Forum in Berlin. Take a little bit of inspiration from this place where 30 years ago the fall of the Wall ushered in a new age. We in the former GDR never thought we would see the Wall fall in our lifetime. But it did happen – thanks to many courageous people and some favourable circumstances. So one never knows whether the courage of an individual or of many individuals might not suddenly open up paths which at present appear virtually inaccessible. So please speak freely and frankly in the workshops, panel discussions and meetings.

I wish you a week of interesting encounters with people whom you perhaps otherwise only know from the internet. Communication doesn’t always have to be digital; you can go for a beer or a glass of wine in one of Berlin’s great pubs and restaurants. Enjoy Berlin. Thank you very much. All the best.

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