Hague says suppression of internet is not acceptable


INTERNATIONAL “RULES of the road” must be agreed for the internet, but not at the price of freedom of expression, British foreign secretary William Hague has told a major conference in London.

“The internet is not separate from society, it is part of society and mirrors society,” he said. “The best and worst of human behaviour find expression online and the technology lends itself to misuse as well as to great benefit.”

Putting Britain at odds with Russia and China, both of which regulate access to the internet, Mr Hague insisted social networking sites such as Twitter should not be closed down “in times of crisis”.

In a clear rebuke to the Chinese, who have jailed bloggers and routinely put internet traffic under surveillance, he said the right both to privacy and to freedom of expression were “universal” and should not be interfered with.

“Cultural differences are not an excuse to water down human rights . . . We reject the view that government suppression of the internet, phone networks and social media at times of unrest is acceptable,” he said.

However, he also pulled back from remarks made by British prime minister David Cameron during the August riots that hit London and other British cities, where the latter indicated that he favoured closing down BlackBerry messaging during disturbances.

In his speech to the conference, attended by 60 countries, Mr Hague said the world “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”.

He added: “Nothing would be more fatal or self-defeating than the heavy hand of state control on the internet.”

The two-day cyberspace conference, which will not take binding decisions, is Mr Hague’s creation and was attended by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales; the president of Facebook, Joanna Shields, and Irish Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Lucinda Creighton.

Eleven lobby groups promoting internet freedoms, including Index on Censorship and Privacy International, warned that Mr Hague’s effort to push for a global deal “is being undermined by domestic policy”.

The conference was taking place “in the shadow” of the Arab Spring revolutions “that have laid bare the relationship between technology, citizens’ freedom and political power” – although these very revolutions have alarmed the Chinese and the Russians. However, Britain’s campaigning ability was being undermined, they said, by Mr Cameron’s past support for social networking restrictions.

Mr Cameron backed away quickly from those remarks after they received support from China, said the group, but the British government is still proceeding with measures that would see surveillance of some internet traffic.

Cyber-security has become a major issue for governments in the last year particularly, following a number of attacks blamed on the Chinese and the Stuxnet virus that disrupted the Iranian’s nuclear programme, generally blamed on the US and Israel.

Unless action was taken now, Mr Hague warned that cyber-crime and hacking would sap “prosperity and innovation” and drive “investment away from countries whose systems are seen to be insecure”.

He went on: “Whatever country we are from, we have an interest in ensuring that children are not vulnerable online, that terrorists have no safe havens on the web, and that the integrity of our financial systems is maintained.”

Meanwhile, Mr Cameron has warned that cyber-crime now costs $1 trillion globally, £27 billion in the United Kingdom alone.