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Sensible utopian visions may eventually come true
– by Hans Dembowski
© Felix Kästle/picture-alliance/dpa
Covid-19 inoculation in the southern German town of Ravensburg.
The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was adopted almost 30 years ago, but the climate crisis has kept escalating. Attempts to pass stringent emission rules failed, so the Paris Agreement of 2015 again relied on voluntary action to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2° and preferably limit the increase to only 1.5°. Good intentions are necessary, and it is welcome that US President Joe Biden is not a climate denier as his predecessor Donald Trump. There is reason to doubt that this will be enough.
Global coordination is necessary in other areas as well. The Covid-19 pandemic is causing dramatic suffering, both in terms of health and economic welfare. Thanks to innovative vaccinations, which have become available in record speed, prosperous nations are likely to achieve herd immunity in the course of this year. At the global level, however, the multilateral initiative Covax aspires to vaccinate only 20 % of partner countries’ populations. That is certainly not enough for herd immunity. Covax is a worthy initiative, of course. It was an important step that countries teamed up to ensure that the new pharmaceuticals become available around the world, but further steps are needed. If a credible plan to achieve global herd immunity in 12 months may not be feasible, what about 15 or 18 months? Such an explicit aspiration would boost global confidence. Moreover, it should be based on fair burden sharing. Instead, prosperous nations are pitching in as their governments seem fit.
Yet another issue of cross-border relevance is the regulation of the internet. In January, Twitter, Facebook and other online platforms finally banned US President Donald Trump after he had incited the violent riot in Washington. Moreover, the internet giants made Parler, a platform beloved by right-wing populists in the USA, unviable by restricting its access to their digital infrastructure. These decisions of great public relevance were made by a handful of private corporations. The top managers are only accountable to shareholders. The goal is to maximise profits and minimise taxes, not to protect democracy.
Nonetheless, they control vital infrastructure of the public sphere – and their track record is not good. They have done far too little to block propaganda lies and hate speech, but often align their policies to those of the governments of the countries where people access their platforms. It is telling that Trump was only banned after losing the elections. It is true that social media served pro-democracy movements in the years before autocrats became aware of how important the internet is. More recently, however, the major platforms hardly did anything to put checks on leaders with proven anti-democratic tendencies.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel had a point when she said that kicking Trump off social-media platforms breached his freedom of speech. The German approach is to make hateful propaganda illegal, obliging platforms to delete such entries after notification. The culprits keep access, but abuse is limited. However, the US understanding of freedom of speech differs from the German one. The US Constitution’s 1st Amendment states that government institutions may not restrict speech, but it does not grant everyone access to every segment of the public sphere in order to express their views. If those components are owned by a private company, that company is free to decide as it pleases.
Slightly differing interpretations are not a serious problem. But it is a big problem that, whether a government respects human rights, only depends on the national constitution and how it is enforced. The Universal Declaration on Human Rights is valid, but not internationally binding. For the sake of global deliberation, we need global internet rules on free and responsible speech. This must not depend on private corporations and autocratic despots.
In the 21st century, environmental protection, public health and digital communication are of global relevance. Human welfare around the world depends on competent cooperation and sensible regulations. Unenforceable principles will not do. So far, calls for stringent global governance sound utopian. Reiterating and pondering them may help – and eventually make them self-evident.