EU, US and others sign declaration on the future of a ‘free, open’ internet

28 Apr 2022

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission. Image: Etienne Ansotte/European Union

Although not legally binding, the declaration seeks to affirm the human rights of individuals online and across the digital world.

A new declaration on the future of the internet has been signed by the EU, the US and other major countries across the world to recognise in the online world the same human rights and democratic principles followed in the offline world.

Launched at a hybrid event in Washington DC today (28 April), the declaration envisions a future of the internet that is “free, open, global, interoperable, reliable and secure” and affirms the human rights of individuals “online and across the digital world”.

All EU member states, including Ireland, were joined by the US and 32 other countries in signing the declaration, with more expected to follow suit. Some of the other major signatories include the UK, Canada, Australia, Israel, Japan, Taiwan and Ukraine.

Russia and China are not on the list.

The European Commission said in its announcement that the current situation in Ukraine “dramatically demonstrates the risk of severe disruption of the internet” in the form of total or partial lockdowns, exacerbated by Russia’s threats to disconnect from the global network.

It also noted other problems with the misuse of the internet, such as the global surge in cyberattacks, online censorship and the spread of disinformation.

Despite these concerns, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said that the internet has “brought humanity together, like never before in history”.

“Like-minded countries from all over the world are setting out a shared vision for the future of the internet, to make sure that the values we hold true offline are also protected online,” she said at the launch. “Because the future of the internet is also the future of democracy, of humankind.”

The launch event organised by the White House’s National Security Council was also joined virtually by EU competition chief Margrethe Vestager and head of the internal market Thierry Breton. They endorsed the declaration, which is not legally binding, and offered a European perspective.

“Online, as well as offline, people should be free, safe and empowered to pursue their aspirations,” Breton said. “This is in Europe’s DNA, and we are committed to work with our international partners to promote an open, neutral, interoperable and secure internet.”

Vestager, one of the key players behinds the EU’s landmark Digital Services Act (DSA) agreed last week, said that Europe’s approach to the internet is to take power from the hands of corporates and states and put it in the hand of the people for greater good.

“Our vision is a global, open internet where people can freely express themselves and companies have a chance to compete and innovate,” she said.

The DSA, whose core principle is what is illegal offline will be illegal online, sets out new rules for digital services and demands tech companies take control of content moderation.

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic