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Cyber summit

November 1, 2011

The UK government is pushing for ongoing dialogue for international standards for activity online. Meanwhile, Russia and China want a sovereign-based international cyber-agreement.

A human eye next to a blue code
Politicians, industry experts and activists met in LondonImage: Fotolia/Kobes

Under heavy security, just across the street from Westminster Abbey, diplomatic representatives from 60 countries, industry executives, and activists gathered together on Tuesday in London to address issues pertaining to global Internet policy.

In a series of panel discussions at the London Cyber Conference, which were closed to the public and to the media - but available via a live online video stream - attendees discussed topics ranging from internet freedom to cyber-crime legislation to international security.

The two-day conference was organized by the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the British foreign minister, William Hague.

"Britain has proposed a set of seven principles as a basis for more effective cooperation between states, businesses and organizations," Hague told the assembled crowd. "These are the need for government to act proportionately in cyberspace and in accordance with international law."

William Hague speaking at the Cyberspace Conference
UK Foreign Secretary Hague wants Britain to set the agendaImage: dapd

Those are sentiments that critics of governments' actions in cyberspace can get behind - if they are sincere. Wary advocacy groups point out that just months ago European politicians called for increased online restrictions in the wake of the riots in England.

"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," said John Kampfner, chief executive of Index on Censorship, during one of Tuesday's sessions. "There should be one rule for all, including western governments."

Kampfner and other international Internet writers and activists published an open letter to Britian's Foreign Office on Monday saying that the UK government can't have it both ways.

"Earlier this year the prime minister suggested there should be more powers to block access to social media, a policy that drew praise from China and which the government swiftly backed away from," they wrote. "There are also plans for more pervasive powers to surveil and access people's personal information online."

Internet freedom

In recent months, the UK has been pushing for primacy in Internet policy, leading the charge among Western countries on the policymaking side. Last month Hague said the UK was prepared to engage in a cyber "first strike" during an international conflict.

Riots in England in August
Some politicians called for more online restrictions in the wake of riots in EnglandImage: dapd

The United States and Israel are also strong players in cyber-security policy - many experts believe they used the first real cyber-weapon last year against Iran's nuclear program. A piece of malware, known as Stuxnet, is thought to have set back Iranian uranium enrichment by at least a few months.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton - who had been scheduled to give a keynote address at the London conference, but had to cancel due to her mother's illness - has in the past addressed the subject of Internet freedom. Her approach, connecting Internet freedom to the 18th-century Enlightenment-era concept of freedom of expression, reflects that of many delegates at the London conference on Tuesday.

The problem, however, lays in reconciling such a concept of freedom of expression with traditional notions of political sovereignty.

Russia and China loom large

Indeed, despite the political rhetoric from North American and European leaders, the elephant in cyberspace continues to be tech-savvy authoritarian countries, most notably Russia and China, which enforces the most sophisticated online surveillance and filtration system anywhere in the world.

The day before the conference began in London, Pauline Neville-Jones, the special representative to business on cyber-security for British Prime Minister David Cameron, told the BBC that the UK believes China and Russia are some of the biggest perpetrators of cyber-attacks.

Both nations, which had a small presence at the London conference, have long been suspected by computer security researchers of being the main perpetrators of insidious attacks on computer networks around the world.

In recent weeks, both the Russian and Chinese governments have been pushing their visions of global cyber policy.

A man using a computer
Activists complain about sophisticated online censorship schemesImage: Emanuel Herm

Last week, the Russian Embassy in London published on its website a "Concept of a Convention on International Information Security," which, in the unlikely scenario that world powers could agree on its principles, would assure that individual countries would assume their own sovereign roles with respect to cyberspace policy in their own countries.

China, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan had proposed the new convention to the United Nations in September.

Similarly, a Chinese delegate reiterated their call at a UN information and cyberspace security meeting two weeks ago. "Practicing power politics in cyberspace in the name of cyber-freedom is untenable," said Wang Qun, China's ambassador for disarmament affairs.

Even as activists and Internet watchers lament sophisticated online censorship regimes in Russia, China, and some Middle Eastern countries, such as Iran, others say there are other, greater problems.

"A big question on censorship is what is being censored?" said Atiaf Alwazir, a Yemeni activist and well-known blogger who spoke extensively at the conference. "Facebook and Twitter have not been blocked as of yet. We have ongoing power cuts - we only have electricity in the capital one to two hours per day."

Author: Cyrus Farivar, London
Editor: Nancy Isenson