Fears of cyber attacks and rising online crime must not be an excuse for a “heavy-handed” crackdown on freedom on the internet, British Prime Minister David Cameron said this evening.
Addressing an international cyberspace conference in London, the Prime Minister said it was essential to strike a balance between the needs of online security and the right to free expression.
Earlier, Foreign Secretary William Hague said it was not acceptable for governments to try to close down social media and mobile phone networks at times of social unrest.
However critics contrasted his comments with Cameron’s response to the London riots when he suggested preventing people using websites and mobile phones to plot violence and disorder.
“It’s very easy to defend the case of black and white – human rights against dictatorships around the world,” John Kampfner, the chief executive of the Index on Censorship, told the conference.
“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.”
The call by Cameron and Hague for human rights online to be respected was seen as a direct challenge to Russia and China – both represented at the conference – who have been pressing for tighter regulation of the internet through binding international treaties.
Britain, in contrast, has been arguing for internationally agreed “norms of behaviour”, ensuring the free flow of information and ideas in cyberspace while taking concerted action to tackle online crime, commentators said.
“We cannot leave cyberspace open to the criminals and the terrorists that threaten our security and our prosperity but at the same time we cannot just go down the heavy-handed route,” Cameron told the conference. “Do that and we will crush all that is good about the internet and the free flow of information – the climate of creativity that gives such life to so many new ideas and new movements.”
“Governments must not use cyber security as an excuse for censorship or to deny people their opportunities that the internet represents. The balance we have got to strike is between freedom and a free-for-all.”
His comments were echoed by Hague who expressed his “passionate conviction” that all human rights – including the right to freedom of expression – should carry “full force” online.
“Cultural differences are not an excuse to water down human rights, nor can the exploitation of digital networks by a minority of criminals or terrorists be a justification for states to censor their citizens,” he said.
“We reject the view that government suppression of the internet, phone networks and social media at times of unrest is acceptable.
“Britain will always be on the side of people aspiring for political and economic freedom, in the Middle East and around the world.”
Britain’s support for internet freedom received strong backing from US vice president Joe Biden, who warned against the imposition of a “repressive global code” on individuals using the internet.
“What citizens do online should not, as some have suggested, be decreed solely by groups of governments making decisions for them somewhere on high,” he said in a video-link address from Washington.
Hague stressed the need to end the current “cyber free-for-all” in the face of online crime rates which were rising “exponentially” and state-sponsored cyber attacks on rival countries.
“As all our societies become more wired-up and technologies converge, the scope for malignant activity will widen alongside the many advantages, whether it is the theft of intellectual property or the spread of malware and viruses.
It will become harder to protect our users or to prevent our defences from being swamped,” he said.
“Furthermore it is increasingly clear that countries with weak cyber defences and capabilities will find themselves exposed over the long term; at a serious strategic disadvantage given the apparent rise in state-sponsored attacks.”