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UNESCO: Address by Prime Minister of Iceland at the Internet for Trust Conference

Video-address by H.E. Ms. Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Prime Minister of Iceland
UNESCO Internet for Trust conference - Paris 22 February 2023


Chere Audrey, distinguished audience,

I am delighted to be with you here today virtually, to address this important issue. This issue is closely tied to the founding mandate of UNESCO. To protect the free flow of information, both word and images, and for UNESCO to serve as a laboratory of ideas.

Today, few things impact our minds more than the information we get through our digital devices, brought to us by algorithms. The huge changes we are seeing in how we get our information, are neither the first or the last ones of their kind. When written language replaced spoken language, and when printing presses replaced manuscript writers, the power structures of societies were inevitably affected.

The medium is the message, has never been more relevant, now when we are in the middle of the digital transformation. It presents great opportunities, both economically and in challenging fields, such as our environmental issues and in healthcare. The internet and social media have enabled  people, both within local communities and across borders worldwide, to connect in a way we have not seen before. This has often been a force for great positive change. These tools have given people a voice and agency, given marginalized groups ways to seek their rights, to get their issues on the political agenda.

But at the same time, the internet and social media can be a dangerous place. Hate speech has driven people into despair and online harassment has ruined lives. We also know that vulnerable people have been radicalized through internet communities. It´s also been notable how women, including politicians and public figures, are targeted with threats and sexual harassment. Here, the goal clearly seems to be to silence them and diminish their power. This is in line with tendencies we´ve seen before when traditional power structures change, and a wider group gets influence, the backlash against these changes becomes real. We must always fight against such tendencies, safeguarding the progress we have made towards a more equal and just world.

The online harassment and violence against journalists, not least women journalists poses a threat to media freedom globally. Deliberate spread of false information in order to undermine democracy presents a grave danger to all of us. In the last past couple of years, we have witnessed two of the world’s largest democracies, question the integrity of elections, risking the peaceful transition of power, due to the spread of disinformation online. Algorithms can create large divides within communities. This can create deeper discord in our public discourse, harm democratic processes, affect elections, and undermine the institutions we rely on to run our societies.

Discussions, such as the ones we are having now in Paris, are immensely important. I thank UNESCO for organizing this impressive multi-stakeholder gathering. This topic is one of the most important ones for the health of our societies and the future of international relations. It´s important to figure out a common set of guidelines on how to regulate this digital space. Technology cannot be misused to suppress people, to surveil or harass, or to shut down the internet.

We need to ensure that new technologies serve the people, that they strengthen democratic processes and human rights, instead of undermining basic principles and values. The impact of artificial intelligence on our societies is unquestionable and is a growing issue we must take seriously. And UNESCO’s important human rights-based recommendation on the ethics of AI responds to that reality. If these innovative technologies are to increase our common good, we need to ensure fair and equal accessibility. Accessibility of AI for indigenous and small language groups can be critical for their future viability. In Iceland, we face this challenge and it has been a priority of my government to make sure that new technology is and will be available in Icelandic, the language on which our cultural heritage is founded, and we use to communicate.

We need to make the digital space a safe space for our children. This is an integral part of the media legislation we are preparing to propose in Iceland, and the guidelines we are discussing here will be part of the upcoming debate in Iceland on this legislation. Moreover, we´ve been doing comprehensive work on how to counter hate speech and I will present a resolution to the Icelandic parliament on that shortly. The work of UNESCO and the UN, and these guidelines, will be useful in that discussion. We are also working on ways to counter the spread of disinformation during electoral periods. For this the guidelines will also be useful.

Dear guests, Iceland currently holds the chairmanship of the Council of Europe, the key institution for democracy, human rights, and rule of law in 46 countries. Our goal is to use this chairmanship to advance human rights, and as the Council of Europe is a leading organization on media freedom, we will facilitate the debate on these guidelines there as well.

Chere Audrey, merci pour votre direction sur cette question. Je vous souhaite à toutes et à tous bonne chance dans cette tâche, extrêmement difficile, et j'ai hâte que mon gouvernement et moi continuions à travailler avec vous pour promouvoir la paix dans l'esprit de l'humanité à travers le monde.


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