David Cameron, prime minister, and Joe Biden, US vice president, took a strong line on freedom of speech on the internet on Tuesday, criticising governments which censored the internet, in what appeared to be a challenge to China and Russia.
Mr Cameron told an international conference in London that “governments must not use cyber security as an excuse for censorship”. Mr Biden said that governments which imprisoned bloggers were in the wrong and urged countries to keep the internet as an open space for all.
However, at the same time the prime minister faced calls of hypocrisy from campaign groups, which said Britain’s domestic policy did not live up to these ideals.
In an open letter to William Hague, foreign secretary, currently hosting the London Cyberspace conference, 11 pressure groups criticised the government for considering shutting down social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook during the riots in August. They also raised concerns about plans to impose greater controls over the viewing of adult material online.
“The government’s record on freedom of expression and privacy is less than ideal. Britain’s desire to promote these ideals internationally is being hampered by domestic policy,” the letter said.
The US government, meanwhile, has faced criticism from campaigners over its efforts to shut down the WikiLeaks whistle-blowing website.
Both China and Russia have proposed more internet controls, with new treaties for governing cyberspace. Igor Shchegolev, the Russian minister of communications, told the conference that internet threats could be as damaging as weapons of mass destruction, and needing to be limited.
But the US and UK have rejected the idea of a treaty, with Mr Hague saying that “simple treaties may result in governments doing the wrong thing” as it was impossible to verify the origins of internet-based attacks.
Mr Biden said: “There are some . . . who seek an international legal instrument that would lead to exclusive government control over internet resources, institutions and content and national barrier to the free flow of information online. But this would lead to a fragmented internet that would not unite people but divide them.”
Amid simmering geo-political tensions, internet businesses also voiced their own concerns about regulation of the internet. Jimmy Wales, founder of the Wikipedia website, told the conference that “the greatest threat to the internet is misguided and over-reaching government policy”. He said communities such as the users of Wikipedia were finding effective ways of policing themselves, without government involvement.
The conference “helps elevate this to a real foreign policy issue,” Chris Painter, the top US official on international cyber issues, said.
Get alerts on Cyber warfare when a new story is published