Freedom or a free for all? Creating an open but safe cyberspace

The difficulty I experienced getting past the media security cordon and into the London Conference on Cyberspace today served to highlight one of the conference’s key themes: how do you manage the security of cyberspace while protecting freedom of expression? Prime Minister David Cameron likened it to “the balance…between freedom and a free-for-all” in his speech.

There has been an “exponential” growth in online crime warned William Hague, the UK’s Foreign secretary. “More than 6 million unique types of new malware (malicious software) were detected by industry in the first three months of the year,” he said.

But Hague also warned that the internet musn’t become subject to different rules and processes which would lead to it becoming “fragmented and ghettoised” and warned against a cyberspace stifled by government control and censorship.

The two-day conference aims to start a collective approach to tackling crime with delegates from 60 countries including Russia, China and India.

Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, said that the biggest threat to the internet wasn’t cyber-criminals but “misguided and over-reaching” government policy that could be “stifling.” Wales talked about how a community of users have developed a way to administer the open content online encyclopedia. He warned that the best thing governments could do for the internet was to “stay out of it.”

Freedom of speech critical

Hague strongly spoke out against curbing freedom of speech: “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.” “Behaviour that is unacceptable offline is also unacceptable online, whether it is carried out by individuals or by governments,” he said.

This same theme was later reiterated by Joe Biden, the Vice President of the USA, who said “existing international law principles should apply online as they apply offline.”

Internet: fast car

Yemeni activist and blogger Atiaf Alwazir brought these issues to life by likening access to the internet to a fast car, rather than having to walk. While social media didn’t start the Arab Spring, they “made us reach it faster,” she said.

Alwazir talked about the internet as a deeply personal tool that gave people the knowledge and confidence they needed to be part of larger political and social movements. Many activists felt a “sense of security behind the computer screen” that helped to “break the fear and silence” that many citizens felt.

She discussed the range of ICTs and other tools people used to mobilise in Yemen. Internet radio built citizen knowledge, Facebook and SMS texting was used to organise groups, live tweeting from the event was used to spread news, with many protesters making videos which were live streamed from the event. This also served as a record if any actions were taken against the protestors.

And she shared a personal story about receiving a threat for uploading a video of a nine-year old girl caught up in a protest onto her You Tube channel. She took a snapshot of the threat and put it on twitter. People direct messaged the person threatening her on You Tube in an action of online solidarity, and eventually he deleted his account.

But the Internet wasn’t a panacea, especially in a country like Yemen with high illiteracy rates. “We face many challenges, mainly this urban/rural divide and the digital divide,” she said. “In countries where there’s high illiteracy rates and low internet access how can we engage the people?”

“Glaring inequalities” between those who can harness the Internet to develop social movement and those who can’t were also pointed out by Hague. He quoted the following startling statistic: 95% of people living in Iceland have Internet access. In Liberia it’s 0.1%.

This was also posted on the International Institute for Environment and Development’s blog