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German Chancellor's Remarks to the IGF 2019

Official translation to English

Speech by Federal Chancellor Dr Angela Merkel

Opening the 14th Annual Meeting ‎of the Internet Governance Forum in Berlin on 26 November 2019‎

‎Secretary-General Guterres, António,‎
Ministers,‎
Excellencies,‎
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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Contact Information

United Nations
Secretariat of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF)

Villa Le Bocage
Palais des Nations,
CH-1211 Geneva 10
Switzerland

igf [at] un [dot] org
+41 (0) 229 173 411