Sunday, October 07, 2012

Cyberspace conference ends with little consensus

The 2012 Budapest Conference on Cyberspace has wrapped up but there was little agreement between nations who have differing views on how the Internet should be controlled. While western democracies spoke of maintaining and preserving openness and freedom on the Internet, this was a subject less discussed from nations such as China which focused instead on building "an open and secure cyberspace".

Chinese suspicions

China has, since its opening up, seen the Internet with suspicion. While it has accepted the need for the Internet in the modern age, China has always been worried about the influence of the World Wide Web. Deng Xiaoping, Mao's successor, famously said, "If you open the window for fresh air, you have to expect some flies to blow in." But as far as China is concerned there are far too many flies.

Huang Huikang, legal advisor and Director-General of the Department of Treaty and Law to China's foreign ministry, speaking at the Cyberspace conference said that although cyberspace was virtual, it needs rules and norms to follow. Furthermore China believes the United Nations is "the best forum for elaboration of international norms and rules in cyberspace".

Rejection of international treaty

Such notions have mostly been rejected by western democracies, as well as civil rights campaigners who believe that dictates set out by the UN could erode Internet freedom. Speaking in Budapest the British Foreign Secretary William Hague said that a Treaty between governments would be "cumbersome to agree, hard to enforce and too narrow in its focus".

William Hague has continually dismissed any suggestion of censorship and suppression of the Internet. "We believe that efforts to suppress the Internet are wrong and are bound to fail over time," he said in his address before delegates at the Budapest conference. "Governments who attempt this are erecting barricades against an unstoppable tide, and acting against their own long term economic interests and their security. This debate needs to be part of international efforts to protect the future of cyberspace."

Censorship criticised

While he did not name any specific country, his comments were likely aimed at countries such as China and Iran which take a strong line in terms of online censorship. "We see growing evidence of some countries drawing the opposite conclusion," Hague said. "Some appear to be going down the path of state control of the Internet: pulling the plug at times of political unrest, invading the privacy of net users, and criminalising and legislating against legitimate expression online."

"We are all aware of the countries where YouTube is permanently blocked as are webpages mentioning 'democracy' or 'human rights'. In some countries the websites of human rights organisations have come under cyber attack themselves. Some countries are considering going down the route of build their own national, ghettoised Internets for a variety of reasons. And following the Arab Spring, we see growing numbers of people ending up in jail for blogging and tweeting about issues we would consider to be legitimate political debate and freedom of expression." [FCO]

But in an opinion led article in the People's Daily Huang Huikang insisted that the domestic management of the Internet was up to each individual country. "Every country is entitled to formulate its policies and laws in light of its history, traditions, culture, language and customs, and manage the internet accordingly," he said.

As regards the free flow of information, he referred to it as a "double edged sword," saying that it was no excuse for the "illegal and irresponsible information rampant on the Internet," which threatened national security, social orders and the lawful rights of people.


The main focus of the conference was cybersecurity and there was some general agreement that such issues should be tackled. William Hague spoke of working together collectively to tackle the threat from criminals and state sponsored cyber attackers.

Again William Hague failed to point any fingers, but he called on all countries to cooperate in curtailing such attacks. However, while joint efforts to stamp out criminal activity might foster support, bringing an end to state sponsored cyber attacks may prove far more difficult [BBC / Guardian].

"It has never been easier to become a cyber criminal. Today, such attacks are criss-crossing the globe from north to south and east to west - in all directions, recognising no borders, with all countries in the firing line," the Foreign Secretary said. He set out plans which would see the UK invest £2 million to set up a "centre of excellence" that will hand out advice to other countries needing to increase their cyber security research and practices [ZDNet]. However the funds could be seen as rather small compared to the £650 million put aside after last years conference to help tackle cyber attacks [eGovMonitor].

Related: tvnewswatch: 2011 Cyber talks fail to reach concensus

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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