Lost in cyberspace

  • 1 November 2011
  • From the section Technology
  • comments

It is a conference that has attracted some high profile speakers - from the EU Commissioner Neelie Kroes to the President of Estonia to the Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.

Delegates from 60 countries and 17 international organisations have converged on Westminster's QE2 Centre for two days of debate. But what is the London Conference on Cyberspace (and what a delightfully retro term that is) designed to achieve?

After spending a few hours in the company of the delegates I am still slightly bemused. At the launch party in the Science Museum last night, the Foreign Secretary William Hague told us the conference would launch an important dialogue on the threats and opportunities of cyberspace - what he called the big Issues, "the Vision, the Hopes, the Fears". He told us we would be putting together the London Agenda, which would shape national and international discussions of cyberspace for years to come.

But in the run-up to the conference, with the boss of GCHQ issuing dire warnings about the mounting dangers from cyber-attacks, it seemed the focus would be on the fears rather than the hopes. The conference itself is a very dark-suited middle-aged male affair, with many of the delegates coming from the security industry.

The programme features a UK cyber industry showcase, with "the latest technologies and services that UK cyber companies are developing." The list of companies displaying their wares is dominated by big defence and security firms - BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin, Qinetiq, Raytheon - and many of them have been promoting the message that cyberspace is a dangerous territory which they can help tame.

So perhaps the conference is designed to come up with some new international measures to combat cybercrime or a new Geneva convention to agree some rules of engagement for cyber war fare?

That was indeed the fear of a blogger who rang me at the weekend to warn that "world governments are going to get together in London to shut down freedom on the internet!" I tried to calm his fears, pointing out that if governments cannot even get together to sort out the euro, they will struggle to control the internet.

And indeed the Foreign Office has been keen to play down expectations of real outcomes from the conference, stressing that this is just a starting-point.

But this morning's opening session did offer some wider perspectives on the future of the internet. A discussion on Internet Freedom featured a Yemeni online activist, Google's head of Freedom of Expression, and John Kampfner from Index on Censorship.

Mr Kampfner got straight into the dilemma facing policy makers, describing how David Cameron had been keen to shut down Blackberry during the summer riots until William Hague had pointed out just how that would play after Britain's support for the Arab Spring activist.

A couple of other panel members were keen to stress the positive side of the internet, and the power it gave to individuals - and pointed out that it was often governments hacking their own people, not the other way round.

So far though the overall impression at this conference is that cyberspace is a frightening and dangerous place and we need to act together to do something about it. But, apart from handing over large sums to security companies, nobody seems that clear about what concerted action would look like.

Update 17:35: The diplomat who's worked long and hard to make this conference happen, John Duncan, of the Foreign Office, came up to me this afternoon to explain why he felt this blog post was a little wide of the mark. He believes that bringing so many different countries and policy-makers together to discuss the future of cyberspace has been really important. And here's a conversation I recorded with him.