LONDON (Reuters) - Britain and the United States strongly rejected calls from China and Russia for greater Internet controls on Tuesday at a major conference on the future of cyberspace, although Western states too faced accusations of double standards.
While Western states worry about intellectual property theft and hacking, authoritarian governments are alarmed at the role the Internet and social media played in the protests that swept the Arab world this year.
In September, China, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan proposed to the United Nations a global code of conduct including the principle that “policy authority for Internet-related public issues is the sovereign right of states”.
Cyber security experts say western Nations hoped to fend off those calls for a “cyber treaty” and to prompt China, Russia and others to rein in hackers. Speaking by video link after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pulled out of the two-day London meeting for family reasons, Vice President Joe Biden was particularly direct.
“What citizens do online should not, as some have suggested, be decreed solely by groups of governments making decisions for them somewhere on high,” he said. “No citizen of any country should be subject to a repressive global code when they send an email or post a comment to a news article. They should not be prevented from sharing their innovations with global consumers simply because they live across a national frontier. That is not how the internet should ever work in our view.”
To impose such controls on the Internet, Biden said, would stifle innovation. If countries wanted the economic benefits of connectivity, he they needed openness.
Britain faced some criticism at the conference following Prime Minister David Cameron’s suggestion this August after England’s riots that government might impose controls on some social media platforms. But Foreign Secretary William Hague struck a similar tone to Biden.
“Too many states around the world are seeking to go beyond legitimate interference or disagree with us about what constitutes ‘legitimate’ behaviour,” Hague told the meeting of ministers, tech executives and Internet activists.
“The idea of freedom cannot be contained behind bars, no matter how strong the lock.”
On Wednesday, delegates will continue to discuss potential international co-operation to tackle online crime, child pornography and other threats — seen by many as the most likely area on which some agreement might be reached.
At a press conference organised by his delegation, Russian official Igor Shchegolev denied the “code of conduct” was part of a plan to censor the Internet, saying it was simply about refreshing now outdated telecommunications treaties.
“We in Russia are convinced that it is impossible to block or censor the Internet,” he said. “Some countries in Europe declare that some social disturbance takes place they will close access to Twitter and Facebook. Russia doesn’t even consider this possibility.”
Some other speakers at the conference said Cameron’s suggested block of at least some social media platforms had put the West in an awkward position.
“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 then freedom of expression is expendable. There should be one rule for all, including Western governments,” said John Kampfner, chief executive of Index on Censorship.
Around 60 countries, including China, Russia and India, were represented at the conference as well as tech industry figures such as Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, and senior executives from Facebook and Google.
Wales told the conference he believed many attempts to regulate the flow of information — such as British court “superinjunctions” which celebrities have used to block discussion of embarrassing stories — were “bad law”.
“We see all the time these kinds of laws,” he said. “Maybe there are better ways than to rely on government control.”
In a closed session, government and business officials discussed cybersecurity, with a mounting number of cyber attacks and hacking attempts seen high on the agenda.
On the eve of the conference, the head of Britain’s communications spy agency said UK government and industry computer systems faced a “disturbing” number of cyber attacks, including a serious assault on the Foreign Office’s network.
In his speech to the conference, Prime Minister Cameron described such attacks as “unacceptable”. Whilst he did not refer directly to his riots comments, he said future prosperity and peace depended on managing cyberspace properly.
“Governments must not use cyber security as an excuse for censorship, or to deny people the opportunities that the internet represents,” Cameron said. “The balance we’ve got to strike is between freedom and a free-for-all.”
Additional reporting by Peter Apps, Michael Holden; writing by Peter Apps