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17 September 2019

Eureka rush


Jan Malinowski

One of the major challenges of the 21st century is the information society, with the spectacular development of the Internet and social networks. Access to pluralistic and high-quality information is a fundamental pillar of any democratic society, but the digital age also poses serious risks and threats. The Council of Europe is firmly committed to democratic Internet governance to ensure access to digital information for all, to protect privacy and to ensure that the Organisation’s values are respected in a world where good and bad are often next to each other. Our colleague Jan Malinowski tells us more about it in his text "Eureka rush".

The likely most common, yet unnamed, feature of the pieces in “Stories in History” is dopamine, a neurotransmitter. No need to go into the different dopamine pathways and the complexity of dopamine that can be gleaned out of the stories. But dopamine is important among other things for movement, memory —the “new, exciting, rewarding” trilogy—, attention, love, pleasure and pain, creativity, discovery, etc. Everyone knows the story about the realisation that drew the exclamation “Eureka!” from Archimedes and made him rush naked out of the tub and run through Syracuse. Disruption, discovery and dopamine: the eureka rush.

The story of how the Swiss banker and philanthropist Jean-Jacques Gautier contributed to the Council of Europe’s history is part of our collective lore. He made every effort to persuade the UN to promote a peacetime arrangement to do for ordinary prisoners what the International Committee of the Red Cross did for prisoners of war. He failed. But when he spoke about it to Peter Leuprecht, who was at that time Director of Human Rights in the Council of Europe, Peter jumped on the idea. Our organisation became the pioneer of hands-on torture-prevention outside armed conflict.

Upbeat, the Council of Europe has taken the lead and seized the moment many other times: putting an end to the death penalty, proscribing corporal punishment, combatting trafficking in human beings, defending gender equality and fighting domestic violence, or relentlessly advocating democracy and charting the roads of European integration, to mention just a few.

The lesson I learned: seize the opportunity, occupy the space, strive to convince.

I was bestowed with an incredible, probably disproportionate share of eureka rushes —fully clothed, mind you— during the ten years that I worked on media, information society and Internet governance.

“Cut staff and activities by half” was one of the first instructions I received when moving to the Media Division in 2005. The Kyiv post-Orange Revolution Ministerial Conference on Mass Media was imminent. The team reinvented itself. It bounced back, successfully pleading the cause of media and broadening work to information society. It was eye opening. No cuts were made. The persistence and hard work of exceptional people, both within the secretariat and in member states, and their conviction that they served the public interest, were revealing.

The lesson I learned, looking back and also looking forward: keep an open mind, think critically and experiment, but do it wisely.

During my ten years in media and information society, our team prepared 20 declarations and 17 recommendations that were adopted by the Committee of Ministers. A constant rush.

What is being done about human rights on the Internet? The astonishing answer to that question in 2005 was that the discussion had been exhausted. As part of the World Summit on the Information Society process, a Working Group on Internet Governance had dealt with human rights, end of story.

Maud de Boer Buquicchio, by then Deputy Secretary General, was quick to understand the challenge involved in the binomial human rights and Internet. She agreed to deliver the message at the Tunis meeting of the World Summit on the Information Society. Outside her office, the instigators of the demarche were reluctantly told “pursue this at your own risk”.

Later, in a UN setting, a very senior representative of the diplomatic community warned us earnestly to refrain from bringing the Council of Europe into reserved grounds. Inspired by the vision of the successive chairs of our steering committee on media and information society, we —experts and secretariat combined— were able to marshal courage, persistence and vision around the transversal challenges of the Internet. We were supported by the Deputy Secretary General and later the Secretary General.

The lesson I learned: support is necessary within and beyond the Council of Europe, securing it requires grit.

A 20-minute call using a Council of Europe mobile phone from Geneva to Strasbourg sowed the seeds for a Recommendation on the public service value of the Internet. It was prepared and adopted by the Committee of Ministers within months that year, 2007. Dopamine rush, but we were later criticised for the length of the call.

Our contributions to the UN Internet Governance Forum (IGF) were often strongly rebuked by some governments, engineers and the business community, even by civil society. “Too much human rights talk” we were told. At a hearing of a European Commission high-level group on Internet governance, well-known academics and personalities ostensibly sneered at the Council of Europe’s Recommendation on the public service value of the Internet, only to see our words recycled in later documents.

Around that time, the team gave birth to the idea of an inclusive European forum for Internet governance. It was carried forward by a group of government representatives, experts and academics who had the courage to believe. The Council of Europe brought it to life, nurturing its foundations, and hosted the first European Dialogue on Internet Governance (EuroDIG) in 2008.

The lesson I learned: don’t be dismayed by critics, it takes time for people to accept new ideas.

Exploring a new notion of media was worth a Ministerial Conference all to itself in 2009. The eureka moment, a year earlier, was written on a paper napkin in the Parisian brasserie “Le Kleber”. The late and great Karol Jakubowicz developed the idea. Despite some foul-mouthing and difficulties to tie ideas down ink-on-paper, work progressed, then leapt forward during a weekend retreat in the snow-covered Swiss Alps.

The Committee of Ministers adopted the Recommendation on a new notion of media in 2011. It is there to explain the editorial responsibility —or irresponsibility— of social media. Their apologies for repeated blunders, their role in the Rohingya crisis, fake news, Cambridge Analytica, … no surprise.

Something had to be done about data protection and mass surveillance: Echelon, Five Eyes and Carnivore shocked, rattled and inspired. Work on data protection was re-ignited and the modernisation of the Council of Europe Convention 108 started. In 2013, within days of Snowden breaking the spell of complacency, the Committee of Ministers adopted a softly termed Declaration on risks to fundamental rights stemming from digital tracking and other surveillance technologies. Mass surveillance generated controversy; the Council of Europe was ready. We called it the “Snowden declaration”. We also had our own “Wikileaks declaration”.

The lesson I learned: the timely adoption of norms is so important.

Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland joined a global panel of influencers and opinion leaders on the future of the Internet. Over the years, the Committee of Ministers adopted recommendations and declarations on human rights and search engines, social networks, security and privacy, or on children’s dignity, our “right to be forgotten declaration”. This expression later entered the annals of international justice in the Google v. Spain judgement of the EU Court of Justice.

Many were captivated by the idea of developing an international legal framework for the Internet based on the Council of Europe values: human rights, democracy, rule of law. For some, working transversally became a way of life, enriching, a necessity when nothing lies in a single backyard or silo. But the early idea of a Council of Europe treaty on the Internet was dismissed with unmitigated brutality. The discussion on the constitutional moment for the Internet was a stellar, yet in part failed, process of discovery and realisation, creativity, pleasure and pain.

Relentless, our team of experts and secretariat developed unprecedented norms that were adopted by the Committee of Ministers on Internet governance principles, and on the protection and promotion of the universality, integrity and openness of the Internet, our “do no harm recommendation”.

The lesson I learned: the Council of Europe is sometimes undervalued and misunderstood.

Archimedes waiting for the rush in a bath. What if, instead of confronting torture, death penalty, corporal punishment, human trafficking, domestic violence, hunger for democracy, and so on, our organisation had found all the good excuses to refuse to take action when success stories came knocking on the door?

It was difficult to reach closure on safety of journalists, protracted discussions over several years. Many deserve credit, including the late Lord Andrew McIntosh, a staunch defender of freedom of expression and member of the Parliamentary Assembly. A promise was made, a platform was born.

Credit also goes to many colleagues who worked on a range of other subjects, including public service media and copyright, or who invested themselves in the cooperation activities organised in the media field.

The lesson I learned: transversality is invaluable and loyalty to a common vision is fundamental.

Did we make an impact? We tried. We did. There is of course the thing about short-term frustration and long-term oblivion, but there has also been a lot of short-term success and longer-term consolidation. Interplays that require decisions at the highest strategic level and constant adjustments, for an organisation to regenerate and reinvent itself. Perhaps the bottom line is that we need to find better ways to communicate. Our narratives need to be updated and we have to become effective storytellers of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. For the 21st century, not for the already long-gone 20th century.

Tim Berners-Lee woke up to fire-crackers around the virtual world and declared the need for a Magna Carta for the Internet. The Gates foundation promoted a new group of eminences to look into the future. Another UN panel was set up. Emmanuel Macron shared his vision for the future of the Internet.

The Council of Europe has moved on, putting its best grey cells and brainpower to new tasks. There’s talk about fake news, click farms, like factories, psy-ops and the unprecedented threats of artificial intelligence. Hopefully learning lessons looking back and looking forward, our organisation is change and challenge ready. Waiting for another epiphany, another transformative moment, another eureka rush triggered by the anticipation of radical change.

During the peace process leading to the Good Friday Agreement, Irish diplomats would conjure “a duty of hope” when things looked particularly difficult. Maria Farrell —the writer and storyteller— adds that despair is unethical, that we don’t get to sit this one out because it is too hard, or because it is someone else’s job, or any other lame excuse.

The lesson I learned: we have a duty of hope.

That is why the Council of Europe was set up. That is why, as public servants, we became the depositories, the trustees of the Council of Europe values —human rights, democracy, the rule of law— and we were entrusted with serving the common good. That is why I accept my share of Council of Europe dopamine, the range of pathways, including learning, attention, pleasure and pain, creativity, discovery, movement, memory.

Awaiting the next eureka rush.


[1] Jan Malinowski is the Head of the Department of the European Social Charter and Executive Secretary of the European Committee of Social Rights. Before this, Jan served in the Council of Europe as Executive Secretary of the Pompidou Group (drug policy), Head of the Information Society Department, Head of the Media Division, Head of Unit / Division and member of the Secretariat of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT).