Last week, British Foreign Secretary William Hague stated at the opening of the London Conference on Cyberspace that while the Internet "... can drive equitable and sustainable growth ... gives access to knowledge and the exchange of ideas... nurtures innovation and investment... [and] nurtures opportunities for participation in social and economic activities for those on the margins," it also creates "...significant challenges which could undermine these benefits and pose a serious threat to reaping the full potential of cyberspace."
"In tackling the threats," Secretary Hague said, "We must not allow improved security to come at the expense of fundamental human rights."
Secretary Hague, who was chair of the conference, re-emphasized this belief at the end of the conference where he said again:
"The conference agreed that efforts to improve cyber security must not be at the expense of human rights."
The British Foreign Minister then added, according to a Reuters story, this thought as well:
"My message to governments is that in the long term efforts to resist the freer flow of information, the tide that is flowing towards greater transparency and accountability, will fail."
You can read Secretary Hague's official statement(s) to the conference here at the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office site, which interestingly, does not seem to include that last remark that I can find.
The purpose of the London Conference on Cyberspace was to launch a "... more focused and inclusive dialogue between key cyberspace actors from across the world including from government, industry and civil society." It was hosted by the UK Foreign Office, and some 60 countries were represented.
Among those attending were Facebook policy director Richard Allan, European Commissioner Neelie Kroes, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, and US Vice President Joseph Biden.
Vice President Joe Biden echoed Secretary Hague's sentiments, stating:
"What citizens do online should not, as some have suggested, be decreed solely by groups of governments making decisions for them somewhere on high."
China was one of the countries represented at the conference, but this story by Reuter's reported that its small delegation "... did not participate actively in the open sessions."
China's Consulate in Edinburgh, seems to have a different view of its participation at the conference, however:
"At the invitation of the UK Foreign Secretary Hague, a joint Chinese delegation composing Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Information Office of the State Council and other departments attended the conference and took an active part in discussions on related topics. China hopes the London Conference and discussions at related forums will be [a] useful supplement to the international process of discussing and formulating international rules on cyberspace within the UN."
And the cyberspace rules the Chinese seem to have in mind, according to an article the Financial Times of London this week, aren't likely to be of the liking of Secretary Hague or Vice President Biden.
The FT reported that following a "three-day political schooling session," the CEOs of 39 Chinese Internet, telecom and computer groups have apparently voluntarily pledged to the Chinese government that they will exert tighter censorship over the 500 million users of the Internet in China.
The CEOs are have said to reached an agreement among themselves to "...strengthen self control, self restraint and strict self discipline ...[to] contain the tendency of spreading online rumours, pornography, fraud and other illegal, harmful information on the Internet."
The FT also says that the group plans future political schooling sessions to reinforce their commitment to their objectives.
So while Secretary Hague and Vice President Biden may believe that countries trying to control the free flow of information over the Internet will fail, the Chinese government - and the CEOs of its major IT companies - aren't letting such beliefs interfere with their ongoing attempts to prove otherwise.
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.