May 25, 2019

International law applies to the digital world too

By Pauline Krikke, Mayor of The Hague.

The Hague likes to bring people together. Whether they be people living in different neighbourhoods of our city, or people from different countries who come to The Hague for a conference. The Hague is pleased to provide a forum for discussion and the exchange of knowledge and ideas.

A tradition which dates back to the first Peace Conferences and the building of the Peace Palace. When it was officially opened in the summer of 1913 it attracted a lot of interest. One of the guests arrived in what – for the time – was a very modern means of transport: he flew from Paris to The Hague in his flying machine, made some turns around the brand new Temple of Peace and set his aircraft down on the ground somewhere nearby. And that was in an era when horse and cart was still the main means of transport. A nice anecdote which clearly illustrates the technological advances of that age. Advances that were then rapidly changing the world. Just as the digital revolution is doing today. This latest revolution however has also presented us with some entirely new issues.

Wars are no longer fought only on the battlefield, but in cyberspace too. Break-ins increasingly take the form of hacks. Bullying is no longer just words spoken but also messages posted and spread on the internet. And the news reaches us not just through newspapers, radio and TV, but increasingly via social media where the “the truth has become elastic”. 

As the city of peace and justice, The Hague wants to be actively involved in finding answers to the question of how to deal with this new reality. Where does the boundary lie between what is – and what is not – acceptable in the digital world? Where does freedom of expression end and censorship begin? And to what extent do we want government or commercial parties to decide what we get to see or not? A great deal has been written about the capacity of social media to promote democracy and build bridges. And that is certainly true. But at the same time, it has also become clear that social media can create even deeper social divides, turning groups of people against one another.

Last December we celebrated the seventieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A human lifespan later this Universal Declaration has lost none of its power. It is still indispensable as a measure of human dignity. But what about human rights in the digital world?

The General Data Protection Regulation of the European Union was, of course, an important step forward, but we still have some way to go. It is all about creating a digital world in which freedom, security, economic growth and social development go hand in hand, and in which the fundamental rights and values of ordinary citizens are protected.

The Hague is more than willing to provide a forum for this vital debate. As we did last year for the Summit for Accountability and Internet Democracy. This year again, two major conferences devoted to this topic are being held here in this city.

And with good reason too. There is already ample expertise on this subject available in and around The Hague. Apart from this concentration of knowledge, The Hague has proven itself to be a unique setting for building trust between parties. Confidence between nations. Faith between businesses. And as a place for international dialogue.

International law, the foundations of which were laid at those early Peace Conferences, applies to the digital world too. But it has to be observed, of course. Something on which agreements need to be made. The Hague sees it as its task to support that process in whatever way it can.

The sheer breadth and diversity of the internet means that this will be no easy task. Because essentially the issue is an ethical one. I am nevertheless convinced that humanity can accomplish that task. In this context, we only need to remember the example of Andrew Carnegie, the man who donated the Peace Palace to The Hague. He was an idealist, but also a realist. It is realism which forces us to act. The generations that come after us will be grateful for that.

Pauline Krikke, Mayor of The Hague. Photography by Martijn Beekman.

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