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Politicians and high-profile tech leaders from over 60 countries are heading to London to discuss the benefits and security risks of cyber-space.
The event has attracted around 900 delegates, although few commentators expect unity from participants who frequently disagree about the exact opportunities and challenges presented by cyber-space.
The conference has a broad agenda and covers everything from access to the internet, the economic impact of cyber-space, its social benefits — including fuelling democracy movements such as the Arab Spring — and cyber-crime and security.
Some commentators believe that competing interests will be split along Cold War-like lines. They have expressed scepticism that the varying agendas of Europe and the United States on one hand and Russia and Chine on the other can be reconciled, particularly on issues such as online freedom of speech.
China is, in particular, a source of tension as it has been blamed for a number of cyber-attacks targeted at word governments. Although, Beijing has vehemently denied any involvement, it was also implicated in a massive global spying campaign identified in August.
“International diplomacy like this among states and private stakeholders is important and will bring needed attention to these issues,” Adam Segal and Matthew Waxman of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote recently.
“But the London summit is also likely to expose major fault lines, not consensus, on the hardest and most significant problems.”
The analysts noted two differing security concerns from each side of the divide.
The security priority of Western states was to protect their networks from attacks, while China and Russia emphasise the security of information, which requires controlling content, they said.
The British officials behind the summit, which will be held behind closed doors, insist they have no ambition of creating new laws or treaties.
They insist that it is, instead, about “starting a debate” between interested parties across the world, and note that several countries have already agreed to host a follow-up conference within the next 12 to 18 months.
The officials also believe that the conference is the first of its kind in the world and will look at all aspects of cyber-space, including talks from 25 young people on what the web means to them.
Cyber-security and the threat of attack has already been given space in high-level discussions by the United Nations and NATO.
Other participants at the conference include internet pioneers Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Chinese video sharing site Tudou.com, as well as cyber-crime agencies, computer security firms, and government representatives from Russia to South Korea.
Despite being the target of the malicious stuxnet worm, which attacked computers at one of its nuclear plants, Iran has not been invited.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who will host the meeting, said it would “discuss ideas and expected behaviour in cyber-space”.
The idea was to “bring together the major actors in cyber-space and to launch an inclusive dialogue on how, collectively, we should respond to the challenges and opportunities which the development of cyber-space presents”, he said.