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Opening speech at the 2023 Stockholm Internet Forum


The Swedish Ambassador for Human Rights, Democracy and the Rule of Law Cecilia Ruthström-Ruin gave an opening speech on
30 May at the 2023 Stockholm Internet Forum.

Check against delivery.

Ladies and gentlemen, friends and colleagues – let me wish you a warm welcome to Stockholm!

It is an honour for me to start off the conversation today at the 2023 Stockholm Internet Forum. I hope that in the next few days, you will all have a chance to engage in fruitful discussions and form new partnerships, and that you leave here energized and inspired.

I am proud that Sweden provides the important platform that the SIF has become, and that it also provides an opportunity to mobilise for future action. For example, I understand that the UN Tech Envoy is here today and that you will have sessions on both internet shutdowns and how tech companies protect users and uphold human rights.

This year’s theme – the Role of the internet and ICT:s during crisis, conflicts and disasters, is very timely to say the least. Today, digital technologies offer unprecedented opportunities and challenges. They can be used as vehicles for positive transformation and change or, if misused, they can be instrumental in fuelling division, insecurity and mistrust.

The internet must be free, secure, and open for all. There can be no doubt that human rights apply online as well as offline – including the rights of freedom of expression, assembly and privacy. The internet and digital technologies enable us to communicate, to access information, to engage in democratic processes and to enjoy our human rights.

Dear friends,

We are living in a new era. An era not least marked by Russia’s unprovoked, full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In this brutal war of aggression internet access, telecommunications and information play a crucial role. 

Thanks to Ukraine’s impressive digitalisation process, internally displaced persons can apply for emergency state support online; civilians suffering missile attacks are alerted when shelter must be sought and can check on their loved ones after the blasts.

Digitalisation and modern technologies have been decisive for Ukraine’s resilience and ability to fight back against the Russian aggression – and imperative in protecting the most vulnerable. 

It is an era in which we see a global trend of democracy in decline, with more complex conflict dynamics as well as new climate-related disasters and challenges. All over the world, we see that space for civil society and democracy is shrinking. Human rights and democracy defenders, journalists and other media workers are being intimidated, harassed and subjected to violence for voicing undesired information and opinions. Women and girls are disproportionately at risk and often suffer sexual and gender-based violence and harassment. These developments are as true online as they are offline – making an open, free, and secure internet increasingly important – not least as a key arena for the work of human rights and democracy defenders. 

Needless to say – the internet has also become a key arena for violations and human rights abuses, as authoritarian states are increasing their surveillance, applying targeted censorship, and ultimately completely shutting down the internet in order to silence opponents and keep their grasp on power.

Clearly, digital transformation and the expansion of the digital ecosystem come with both challenges and opportunities. We must consider both increased security risks, not least in developing countries, and the need for strengthening our resilience and cybersecurity posture. The role of a safe, secure, and rights respecting online environment is key in achieving our shared Sustainable Development Goals.

The international community should explore practical ways to mainstream cybersecurity capacity building into broader digital development efforts and work toward agreeing on a common set of goals and activities to that end. 

Ladies and gentlemen,

In times of conflict and crisis, the internet and ICT:s can play a crucial role in connecting people and providing invaluable information and services. They can also serve as a vehicle for mobilisation and as a tool for documenting violations and human rights abuses. The role of the internet and social media platforms in different situations, including, the protests in Iran cannot be underestimated. 

I would also like to stress the importance of multi-stakeholder cooperation. No one can govern the internet alone. States, civil society and companies must work together in developing the framework, content and common standards of the internet.

States, because they must ensure respect for and fulfil human rights obligations online; companies, because they are instrumental in maintaining the democratic space and must also respect human rights; and civil society, because they play an important role as a watch dog, monitoring potential violations and abuses of human rights. 

Together with Rwanda, we have been entrusted as co-facilitators of the UN Global Digital Compact, a first of its kind global framework to lay out principles for digital cooperation, shaped not only by states but also by the multistakeholder community. Sweden is a proud member of the Freedom Online Coalition which is one important example of multi-stakeholder cooperation working for internet freedom and human rights online.  

Let me also stress the importance of transatlantic cooperation in the field of digitalization, transparency, and human rights. Right now, Sweden is hosting the fourth meeting of the Trade and Technology Council between the US and the EU in Luleå, with these particular issues among those being discussed.

To conclude,

In this new era the importance of a free, open, and secure internet where human rights are respected cannot be underestimated. Thus, our focus on digital issues will continue and you can count on Sweden to be an active voice in this field in all relevant fora, including the EU and the UN. Our work for an internet that is free and open for all, even during crisis, conflict, and disasters will continue unabated.

Finally, I hope that your discussions are fruitful and rewarding, and that you also find some time to enjoy our beautiful city of Stockholm.

Thank you.