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Speech by Foreign Minister Heiko Maas at the opening of the FUTURE AFFAIRS Conference

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas at the opening of the FUTURE AFFAIRS Conference

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas at the opening of the FUTURE AFFAIRS Conference, © Xander Heinl/photothek.net

29.05.2019 - Speech

Europe has voted. European Parliament elections were held on Sunday, and now we’re seeing increasing numbers of analyses regarding the impact of social media on this election. 
However, the debate right now is being conducted in a different way than what we might have expected a few weeks ago. In the run up to the election, there was much talk about the dangers of so called “fake news” and disinformation in social media.
However, its impact in this election was far less than many had expected. Perhaps we’ve just become more vigilant.

The intense activity on the internet, the wave of mobilisation, above all among first time voters, were not triggered by tweets from right wing populists or Russian bots. It was young people who emancipated themselves from old-fashioned, analogue politics, who used this digital media to communicate directly with their audience. More than 80 YouTubers, with a reach of several million people, demonstrated the democratic potential of the digital transformation and how it is changing our democratic interaction across the board.

When we talk about the digital transformation today, then our focus is on opportunities and risks. We also consider how we can develop responses and ideas to the question as to how we can assert our values in the digital world. In the face of the digital transformation, we must learn new ways of conducting and communicating politics.

Ladies and gentlemen,

There’s no denying that technological leadership in the digital transformation is a power factor of tremendous importance, a game changer, because it will have an impact on all other power factors.

•    Those who have the best access to data have control of the decisive raw material for machine learning.
•    Those who set standards and own patents will hold the key to the competition between major powers in the future.
•    If there are additional breakthroughs, for example in processing capacity, then the balance of power will shift once again.

China and the US have long since taken this fact to heart. This also explains the increasing toughness with which they are currently engaged in their struggle for digital supremacy. Very different schools of thought run up against each other here – those who are committed to coexistence and those who are calling for complete technological decoupling from each other.
And therefore, yes, the world is at risk of falling into a new division. This time around, it’s not a military division, like in the Cold War, but a technological one.

The debate surrounding the introduction of 5G is a genuine reality check for us Europeans in this regard as it has shown us how close we are today to a world in which the only choice we have is between an American and a Chinese tech sphere.

It’s not difficult to imagine what such a world would look like if things were like this.

•    At one end of the spectrum we have a model that perceives technology as a means of control, of preserving power. Mass surveillance and censorship, and also systems such as social scoring, are the tools of choice. Technology thus becomes nothing more than a totalitarian instrument.

•    At the other end of the spectrum we have a model that rejects any form of regulation as an invasion of the freedom of digital space. Those who develop new technologies push the boundaries of the possible. Anything that is technologically feasible goes. Let’s call this the ultra-libertarian approach.

We Europeans, and, I believe many of our guests from Latin America and the Caribbean, are somewhere between these two poles.

We believe in the great, positive potential of the digital transformation, and yet we also recognise the dangers for our democracy. Isolationism is not a solution, however. Free, open societies need a free, open internet.
However, freedom also needs rules.

Let’s be honest, in order to set rules, in order to enforce them, we must also exert influence, especially in international politics. And this is influence that none of our countries have by themselves.

Therefore, ladies and gentlemen,
the digital revolution is the best example of why multilateralism is the answer, and why nationalism cannot work in a globalised world. The digital revolution cannot be managed or controlled by individual countries. We must respond to digital connectivity with political connectivity.

I believe that we have made some progress in this area:
•    Along with Brazil, we have co sponsored six resolutions on the right to privacy in the digital age to the UN General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council since 2013.

•    Last year, we worked closely with Mexico to develop a new mandate for the Group of Governmental Experts to develop standards of good governance on the internet. Incidentally, this group is chaired by a Brazilian.

But we need to go much further still given the force of digital change. It was with this in mind that we invited you here to Berlin today. We invited those who, like us, are committed to multilateral solutions, whose voices are often not heard enough on such issues. And this is in spite of the fact that countries such as yours, President Alvarado, have a great deal of experience as locations for innovative high-tech companies and startups.
That’s why we deliberately chose Latin America as our partner region for the first Future Affairs Conference here in Berlin. And we have got re:publica, Europe’s biggest digital conference, on board as well. After all, one thing is abundantly clear, which is that key issues for the future such as climate change and the digital transformation cannot be addressed without civil society, companies or NGOs. We need your creativity, your expertise, and sometimes also a bit of provocation, in order to find the right path in the digital world.

And this path, ladies and gentlemen, must be a new path, a path between the totalitarian and the ultra-libertarian approach.

•    We have mapped out such a path – despite all of the criticism – with the General Data Protection Regulation. It has become a role model and the de facto standard in many countries. Recently, even Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said that a “European style” regulation could also be in the interest of American internet companies that are seeking a global level playing field.

•    And an expert commission of the EU published guidelines for the field of artificial intelligence at the beginning of April. In so doing, the EU wants to achieve in the field of AI what it has already achieved with the General Data Protection Regulation, namely the ability to co determine standards and norms worldwide.

And we can see from this that, together, we are anything but powerless.

Moreover, ladies and gentlemen, we must be able to keep pace technologically. That is why we will do our utmost to ensure that the EU consistently focuses its next financial framework on future issues – on research and development. At the end of the day, innovation also guarantees influence – this applies more than ever in the digital world.

We want to talk together today about the best practices that are already out there. I would like to mention only a few of the approaches that we are currently focusing on at the Federal Foreign Office:

•    Let’s talk about disinformation. Already today, we are drawing on certain algorithms and AI to better understand discourses in social media. This helps us, for example, to take countermeasures more quickly when false information is disseminated – as traffickers did, for example, in connection with the refugee crisis. And within the EU, we are focusing on improved coordination with the Action Plan against Disinformation.

•    Let’s talk about early crisis detection. Last year, reports that China was already using artificial intelligence to prepare foreign policy decisions caused a sensation.

We’re still quite a long way away from this. However, we have developed a platform that will help us to detect crises at an earlier stage. Key economic indicators, climate data, data on terrorist attacks and hostilities, information on population trends – all this information allows us to detect crises at an early stage. This can be worth its weight in gold in terms of a forward-looking foreign policy.

•    Finally, let’s talk about early warning systems. In Syria, we’re witnessing right now how innovative technology can save lives. We’re supporting a local organisation that has developed an early warning system for air attacks on civilian and humanitarian facilities – with simple sensors and observers, who are connected via social networks. These people save lives in areas like Idlib each and every day.

Ladies and gentlemen,
These examples show the potential offered by social media. Last week’s debate was another reminder of this fact.

There’s a proverb, fittingly a Chinese one, that goes like this: “When the wind of change blows, some build walls and others windmills.”
I think I speak for many here in this room when I say that we don’t believe in walls. Walls weren’t a good idea in the past. They’re even less suitable as a solution for the future. 

And this is why I say let’s use the fresh wind of the digital transformation. Let’s build windmills together instead. And perhaps we can get started on this here today.

Thank you very much.

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