UK, US warn over internet freedom

2011-11-01 22:11

London - Britain and the United States appealed on Tuesday for internet freedom at a global conference designed to set up the "rules of the road" for cyberspace, although critics accused Western powers of hypocrisy.

Government officials, tech firms, NGOs, bloggers and security experts from more than 60 countries attended the two-day talks in London, and US Vice President Joe Biden also gave an address via video-link from Washington.

In his opening speech to delegates including officials from Russia and China, William Hague said the social and economic benefits of the internet were huge and warned that any states trying to block online activity would lose out.

"We must aspire to a future for cyberspace which is not stifled by government control or censorship, but where innovation and competition flourish and investment and enterprise are rewarded," the foreign secretary said.

Hague warned that human rights, particularly the right to privacy and freedom of expression, "should carry full force online".

"We reject the view that government suppression of the internet, phone networks and social media at times of unrest is acceptable," he said.

Biden echoed Hague, saying that while the internet presented opportunities for wrongdoing "on a vast scale" from terrorism to human trafficking, child pornography to attacks on government systems, they were no excuse for censorship.

"In our quest for security, we believe that we cannot sacrifice the openness that makes possible all the benefits and opportunities that the internet brings," he said, standing in for US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who had to cancel due to the illness of her mother, who later died.

He added: "Those countries that try to have it both ways by making the internet closed to freedom of expression but open for business will find that this is no easy task."


Although both men were referring to crackdowns in the Middle East and North Africa and efforts by countries such as China and Russia to control the flow of information, Britain faces accusations of hypocrisy.

In August, when rioting broke out across English cities, Prime Minister David Cameron had mooted the idea of stopping rioters communicating via social media, although the government did not take it any further.

John Kampfner, chief executive of Index on Censorship, highlighted this at a side meeting at the conference, saying: "It's very easy to defend this case of black and white human rights against dictatorships around the world.

"But as soon as our own western-style stability of the state is called into question, well then freedom of expression is expendable. There should be one rule for all including western governments."

He said Hague had challenged Cameron on his stance at the time, and in his brief address to the conference on Tuesday, the prime minister insisted it was important to "strike a balance... between freedom and a free-for-all".

William Echikson, Google's head of free expression in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, also warned at the conference that Western governments were not immune from wanting to control the Internet.

Freedom of expression "is being challenged closer to home here in Europe. There are some 60 countries which impose controls now on the internet, and that's up from two a decade ago," Echikson said.

He cited a case last year when three Google Italy executives were convicted of violation of privacy over an internet video of bullying, adding: "The dangers are really here in the present and they are threatening companies like Google."

The London talks cover a broad agenda including cyber security, and Hague said it would aim to set up some basic global principles for cyberspace.

"In the place of today's cyber free-for-all, we need rules of the road," he said, adding that Hungary had agreed to hold a follow-on conference in 2012, and South Korea would hold another similar meeting in 2013.

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