U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden and British Prime Minister David Cameron Tuesday condemned efforts by some countries to censor their citizens’ use of the Internet, making a case that free expression online has long-term benefits.
Biden, who spoke via a video link from Washington, D.C., and Cameron addressed delegates from more than 60 countries in London convened for a wide-ranging two-day conference aimed at fostering closer cooperation between nations on issues such as cybercrime and freedom of expression. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had been expected to represent the U.S. in person but cancelled due to her mother’s death.
“No citizen of any country should be subject to a repressive global code when they send an email or post a comment to a news article,” Biden said. “Now, there are some who have a different view you all know.”
Last week, China started detaining Internet users for allegedly spreading rumors on social media sites, instructing the country’s State Internet Information Office to prosecute offenders. China has a sophisticated network for monitoring websites and social media sites for content it considers offensive, and human censors evaluate and delete what is deemed offensive content.
Biden did not name countries he felt were offenders. But he criticized the efforts of some nations pursuing an “international legal instrument that would lead to exclusive government control over Internet resources, institutions and content and national barriers on the free flow of information online.”
“This in our view would lead to a fragmented Internet,” Biden said.
In September, the permanent representatives of China, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan sent a letter to the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon calling for a code of conduct revolving around the use of information technologies by countries. The countries contend the agreement would ensure peace and security among nations in cyberspace.
Biden said the U.S. strongly supports an existing treaty, the Convention on Cybercrime. The treaty defines legal guidelines for countries seeking to establish effective laws against computer crime as well points of contact for cross-border investigations. China, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are not parties to the treaty.
Further, Biden said there are already well-established principles in international law concerning conflict between nations that can be applied online. “We don’t need to start from scratch,” he said. “International law principles are not suspended in cyberspace.”
In his address, Cameron said the U.K. faces attacks every day on an “industrial scale” intended to steal government secrets that would be of interest to nation states. He said a “significant” attack aimed at the U.K. Foreign Office was repelled over the summer.
“These are attacks on our national interest,” Cameron said. “They are unacceptable. We will respond to them as robustly as we would do with any other national security threat.”
The U.K. has committed £650 million (US$ 1 billion) to shoring up its cyberdefense capabilities following a review of its defense forces, Cameron said. As a priority, cybersecurity ranked right alongside concerns about the size of the U.K. conventional military capabilities, such as tanks and ships, he said.
“That is how important we think this is,” Cameron said.
At the same time, governments should not go down the heavy-handed route. “Governments must not use cybersecurity as an excuse for censorship or to deny people their opportunities that the Internet represents. The balance we’ve got to strike is between freedom and a free for all,” Cameron said.
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