Address by Minister Baird to Freedom Online Coalition Conference
April 28, 2014 - Tallinn, Estonia
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Good morning distinguished colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,
I’m grateful to our hosts, President Ilves and Minister Paet.
It is a strong message that this year’s conference is being held here in Tallinn.
Yes, Estonia is an impressive leader in e-governance.
And it should be commended for its deep commitment to Internet freedom, government openness and transparency.
But just as importantly, Estonia feels in its bones the need to support freedom against aggressive actors and oppressive regimes that seek to stifle the voices of their citizens.
Technology has always played a role in countering this.
That’s why Lennart Meri, Estonia’s first post-Soviet president, nominated Radio Free Europe for the Nobel Peace Prize, back in 1991. Do people in this room still listen to the radio?
Current President Ilves knows this well—he actually ran the Estonia desk at Radio Free Europe before working in diplomacy and politics.
But the impact of, and potential for, the Internet is on a completely different level to anything we have seen before.
I don’t need to preach to the choir here.
The Internet drives economic growth, spurs innovation and has quickened the pace of globalization.
It enriches and empowers lives of individuals around the world, creates space for open dialogue and gives voice to the voiceless.
It helps citizens around the world to shape major events and effect change like never before.
But if someone nominated the Internet for the Nobel Peace Prize today, would you vote for it?
Like any powerful tool, it can be a double-edged sword.
As members of the Freedom Online Coalition, we have dedicated ourselves to freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
But others are harnessing the latest cyber technologies to suppress activism, quash dissent and silence any criticisms.
The more people are empowered, the more some governments fear being disempowered.
They fear their control being undermined by new ideas and independent thought.
So rather than embracing the people they claim to represent, these governments are taking repressive measures to block free expression and access to information within their borders.
They use the power of technology to stalk and control their citizens.
In other words, tools for freedom are being turned into tools of repression.
Just look at what is happening next door, in the Russian Federation.
While the world is focussed on Russia’s attempt to annex Crimea and its massing of troops along Ukraine’s eastern border, President Putin has accelerated his restrictions on the Internet and his crackdown on the media and opposition voices.
Estonia knows well, after the cyber attacks of 2007, that you don’t necessarily need tanks and jets to violate a sovereign nation.
The seemingly anonymous “green men” we’ve seen in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine have their online equivalents.
And just last week there’s been what looks like a pro-Putin coup within VKontakte, Russia’s most popular social network.
Canada is deeply concerned with this growing trend. All states must respect internationally recognized human rights—both online and offline.
Those of us who do respect those rights should look for innovative ways to support them.
In some countries, Canada is now engaging directly with civic and political actors to help them to effect positive change where they live.
Canada’s support for the Global Dialogue on the Future of Iran is an example of this.
The Global Dialogue’s social media platforms have created space for Iranians to share information that their government has sought to filter and block.
It’s been a huge success—over 1.2 million unique users have accessed these platforms from inside Iran—and we intend to roll this approach out further.
We must also look to the private sector. After all, much of the infrastructure for the Internet, and most of the services it provides, belongs to them.
In this globalizing world, an Internet with unhindered communication— that allows the free and secure exchange of information—is an essential investment for the private sector.
Successful international business requires that the private sector resist efforts by authoritarian regimes to curtail freedom through filters and monitoring.
Businesses have a responsibility to protect customers and their rights.
So, we all have a shared interest in preserving an open cyberspace.
It is essential to our collective prosperity, security and values of democracy and human rights.
Canada will continue to work with our international partners to safeguard human rights and freedom, offline and online.
And I look forward today to hearing how we can redouble those efforts.
There’s too much at stake not to.
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