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The first day of a global summit aimed at addressing cyber-security threats and setting up the “rules of the road” for the internet saw Western nations, particularly the UK, facing charges of hypocrisy.
The conference is being attended by global leaders from the internet and business worlds and delegates from 60 nations. Guests at The London Conference on Cyberspace include UK Foreign Secretary William Hague and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had been scheduled to attend but cancelled due to the passing of her mother.
At the Queen Elizabeth II centre in London where the conference is being held, Britain and the United States appealed for internet freedom to be held in the highest of regard.
“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,” Hague told the high-level gathering In his opening address.
Speaking before delegates from nations including China and Russia, Hague also said “We reject the view that government suppression of the internet, phone networks and social media at times of unrest is acceptable” and warned that human rights, particularly the right to privacy and freedom of expression, “should carry full force online”.
Hague’s statements, which were intended as a reference to crackdowns during the Arab Spring and efforts by countries such as China and Russia to control the flow of information, were echoed by US Vice President Joe Biden, who stood in for Clinton, giving an address via video-link from Washington.
It was Hague’s claims that the suppression of social networks was unacceptable, however, which drew criticism.
In the wake of riots which rocked England, UK Prime Minister David Cameron called for police and intelligence services to be empowered with the ability to shut social networks in times of national emergency.
William Echikson, Google‘s head of free expression in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, warned at the conference that Western governments were not innocent of 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.
John Kampfner, chief executive of Index on Censorship, also highlighted this “hypocrisy” 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”.