Remarks to the Freedom Online Coalition Conference

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Via Teleconference
April 28, 2014

We’re on. We’re all set, guys. Our people were not sure whether you had me or not. But thank you. I heard everything, including all your very provocative questions. (Laughter.) And I appreciate the opportunity to talk to everybody.

I – look, frankly, I wish I was able to be with all of you in Tallinn for the conference. And it’s not lost on any of us that Estonia has set the gold standard, really, the global gold standard in cyber security, in e-governance, and in technological innovation. In many ways, Estonia is defining the future for advances in management of the internet. And excitingly, there were more start-ups in Estonia per capita than in any other country in Europe. So to all of you who’ve been part of that, who’ve established a pioneering role in the Community of Democracies’ LEND Network, you’ve really shown how to use this online platform to support democratic transitions. And that’s true from Moldova to Tunisia and beyond. So I’m very grateful to be able to speak to a group of such committed partners. And I thank particularly President Ilves and Foreign Minister Paet for their leadership.

Frankly, it’s amazing how much progress Estonia’s made since the end of the Cold War. And the unmistakable symbol, obviously, of the Cold War was a wall, a wall that was made of concrete. Today we’ve all learned that walls can be made of 1s and 0s, and the depravation of access even to those 1s and 0s. And that wall can be just as powerful in keeping us apart in a world that is so incredibly interconnected.

So it’s very much our – excuse me – our common responsibility to try to tear down those walls, just as it was our responsibility to try to do that during the Cold War, and also, obviously, to answer the questions that Tim posed about people’s fears of government intrusion or a violation of some ethical standard with respect to the use of the internet. And I certainly am not shy about responding to that at any given point in time or in any way, and I will a little bit here.

But let me just say that that’s really what makes it important that we have a chance to talk this evening. It’s important because the biggest concerns on your mind – I think an open, interoperable, secure, and inclusive internet – are obviously concerns that weigh on our minds too.

When I was in the United States Senate, I was the chairman of the Communications Subcommittee. So I helped write the law about our Telecommunications Act of 1996. I actually remember distinctly – when we wrote that law governing our use of telephony, that’s exactly what we were looking at in 1996, was telephony. And within six months, the act that we passed was completely antiquated; it was completely out of date. And that’s because we never really dealt with the issue of the management of data. It just, frankly, hadn’t penetrated the consciousness sufficiently that that’s where our focus was placed – obviously, inappropriately so.

The fact is that now we face a choice about how we organize ourselves as societies and how we manage this movement of information and control over it and search engines and access. All of these things are critical. And the choice is really a choice between those who demand dignity and respect for rights versus those who are prepared to deny it. The stand that we are now taking for Ukraine, for instance, for Estonia, and for our allies in Central and Eastern Europe, I hope signals which side the United States is on, despite the fact that people have had questions about the policies with respect to access and information on the internet.

But I want to remind you: The stakes in this very different world are as real today in the virtual world as in the visible world, the tangible world. And we need to continue to stand as we have for open markets, for open societies, and for an open internet. And I want to underscore the word “open” because open and inclusive, with respect to the internet, really matters. It matters that you can interact and debate with people who live in different countries. It matters that you can spread ideas and connect with people, whoever they may be, who want to share those ideas. And it matters that you can blog about an election campaign, organize on Facebook, use Twitter to hold your government accountable. I mean, all of these things make all the difference in today’s world. And imagine if I couldn’t talk to you today simply because my government had shut down or censored the internet, or your government, or anybody in between was able to get between us in this transmission.

Now, I know it’s almost impossible to fathom for those people who live in a free world that that would actually happen. We can sit around with our friends, we debate an issue, and even Google an answer in the course of a dinner conversation to bolster our argument. But here’s something important for everybody to think about: All the facts in the world available in real time won’t make a whit of difference if people don’t have access, if there isn’t a guarantee that everybody is able to access that information. And for millions of people today, that is the reality of the challenge that they face.

All you have to do is read the headlines and you can discern an absolutely unmistakable pattern.

The places where we face some of the greatest security challenges today are also the places where governments set up firewalls against basic freedoms online.

As the Ukrainian people are marching toward a democratic future, Russia’s military is massing on the borders. And it’s no coincidence that Russia just forced the founder of its largest social network, Pavel Durov, to flee after he had refused to disclose personal information about the protesters in Ukraine’s Euromaidan.

In Venezuela, the government has used security forces to disrupt peaceful protests and limit freedoms of expression and assembly. And this has included blocking access to selected websites and limiting access to internet service in certain parts of the country.

Now, look, I am convinced – and I hope you are – that these tactics will fail the test of history. And when we stand up for freedom of expression anywhere and everywhere that it’s threatened, including with our friends and our allies, that makes all the difference in the world. That’s why we called on Turkey to unblock its citizens’ access to Twitter and remove other barriers to free expression on the internet. There is no question in anybody’s mind that this freedom of access is a fundamental kind of right and it is going to be fundamental to people everywhere who are going to demand that because they recognize that through it comes a kind of accountability that you can’t have necessarily otherwise.

What happened in Tahrir Square, in Egypt, was not the result of religious explosion. It wasn’t the Muslim Brotherhood. It was young people with their smartphones communicating to each other and calling on each other through the access of free communication to be able to express their hopes for the future. The same thing began to happen in Syria. And Syria, people forget, began with young people who wanted jobs and education and a future.

So ultimately, what we’re really talking about here tonight are two opposing visions. We believe in an open and inclusive internet with input from all and equal access to all. And we believe in giving people a voice from the bottom up. The authoritarian vision sees a free, open, inclusive internet as a threat to state power. So what do these states do? They use their power to threaten the internet, and it’s about controlling information and access to it from the top down. For them, it’s about creating a fragmented internet that divides us rather than unites us, that minimizes the voice of people and maximizes their ability to cloud the truth.

So my friends, that is absolutely what is at stake here – two different visions, two different futures. And that’s why the work of the Freedom Online Coalition is so critical. It’s so important. And the question now is: Where do we go from here?

Well, first, we need to affirm the simple truth that we all have a stake in how the internet is governed. Governments do have an important role. We acknowledge that. So do businesses, students, teachers, scientists, civil society leaders. Our principle is clear: If you have an interest in how the internet works, you get to play a role in how it’s governed. That’s what global, multi-stakeholder internet governance is all about.

As the Net Mundial conference in Brazil reaffirmed just last week, which you referred to, governments, civil society, academia, and the private sector have to work together to manage the global digital environment. States must also work hand in hand with the private sector to protect and advance international cyber security. We all need to work together on efforts to reduce conflict and defend against cyber attacks on our digital infrastructure or intrusion into our businesses, into our lives.

But let me be clear – as in the physical space, cyber security cannot come at the expense of cyber privacy. And we all know this is a difficult challenge. But I am serious when I tell you that we are committed to discussing it in an absolutely inclusive and transparent manner, both at home and abroad. As President Obama has made clear, just because we can do something doesn’t mean that we should do it. And that’s why he ordered a thorough review of all our signals intelligence practices. And that’s why he then, after examining it and debating it and openly engaging in a conversation about it, which is unlike most countries on the planet, he announced a set of concrete and meaningful reforms, including on electronic surveillance, in a world where we know there are terrorists and others who are seeking to do injury to all of us.

So our reforms are based on principles that we believe are universally applicable. First, rule of law – democracies must act according to clear, legal authorities, and their intelligence agencies must not exceed those authorities. Second, legitimate purpose – democracies should collect and share intelligence only for legitimate national security reasons and never to suppress or burden criticism or dissent. Third, oversight – judicial, legislative or other bodies such as independent inspectors general play a key role in ensuring that these activities fall within legal bounds. And finally, transparency – the principles governing such activities need to be understood so that free people can debate them and play their part in shaping these choices. And we believe these principles can positively help us to distinguish the legitimate practices of states governed by the rule of law from the legitimate practices of states that actually use surveillance to repress their people. And while I expect you to hold the United States to the standards that I’ve outlined, I also hope that you won’t let the world forget the places where those who hold their government to standards go to jail rather than win prizes.

So we’ve had a healthy and a very vigorous debate in our country, and we’ve engaged in direct conversations with our friends in Brazil and Germany, in other parts of the world, where people have felt somehow aggrieved by a decision made, or even in some cases a decision not made. We are not finished in our work. But we’re also not taking our eye off the ball. Ultimately, as I said a moment ago, this debate is about two very different visions: one vision that respects freedom and another that denies it. All of you at the Freedom Online Coalition are on the right side of this debate, and now we need to make sure that all of us together wind up on the right side of history.

I have absolute faith that we can get this right. I know we can balance these interests. But we need to be thoughtful and reasonable in how the internet actually works and can work for the best, even as we protect privacy. John McCain and I were the authors of the original privacy legislation for the internet in the United States Senate. I have a long history of working on this issue, and I can guarantee that we are determined to try to get this right.

Our history has proven time and time again that you need to. Just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, hundreds of thousands of people from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, all joined hands to form a human chain more than 400 miles long. And one Estonian lawmaker captured the spirit of that moment. She said: “All of us would like to have freedom, and freedom without independence is impossible.” Those words ring just as true now as they did then, only today I would say this: I would say that freedom without interdependence is impossible. The internet has linked us all in a human chain that spans the globe, and the freedoms that we seek in the virtual square and public square are absolutely one and the same.

So we need to each stand for an open, secure, and inclusive internet, and we each must work for the day when we are bound together not only by the humanity that ties us all together, but by the freedoms that for too long have been the province of too few. That’s our mission. That’s what we have to change. Thank you, all of you, for what you do, and I hope you enjoy the rest of the conference. (Applause.)