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UK Foreign Secretary Demands Open Internet But Promotes Censorship

Friday, Oct 5th, 2012 (8:28 am) - Score 999

The UK Foreign Secretary, William Hague (MP), yesterday told the Budapest Conference on Cyberspace that he wanted an “open” and “transparent” internet that respected “individual rights of privacy“. But back at home the government’s effort to increase its monitoring and censorship of the online world continues to expand.

Hague’s speech warned that there was a “darker side” to the internet and called for a new international consensus on “rules of the road to guide future behaviour in cyberspace and to combat the worst abuses of it“, albeit one that would not require a new Treaty between governments because that would be too “cumbersome to agree, hard to enforce and too narrow in its focus” (perhaps because other governments might at least challenge anything that risks damaging civil liberties).

William Hague, Foreign Secretary, added:

We believe that it is not simply enough to address economic and security threats on the internet without also taking steps to preserve the openness and freedom which is the root of its success.

We see growing evidence of some countries [Iran, China etc.] drawing the opposite conclusion. Some appear to be going down the path of state control of the internet: pulling the plug at times of political unrest, invading the privacy of net users, and criminalising and legislating against legitimate expression online.

We believe that efforts to suppress the internet are wrong and are bound to fail over time. Governments who attempt this are erecting barricades against an unstoppable tide, and acting against their own long term economic interests and their security.

But democratic governments must resist the calls to censor a wide range of content just because they or others find it offensive or objectionable. If we go down that path, we begin to erode the hard won rights of freedom of expression. We will always argue that is its necessary to err on the side of freedom.”

Hypocrisy, it’s a truly wonderful word, one that describes the personally held promotion of specific moral virtues or principles that are in fact violated by reality on the ground. Indeed it’s a word that comes to mind a lot while reading Hague’s speech. Few could disagree with what he says above but the growing perception of reality appears to be rather different.

Last month Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web, warned that many of the new laws and bills being pushed through by the current coalition government risked damaging free speech and could increase monitoring of private citizens.

Berners-Lee was of course referring to legislation like the 2010 Digital Economy Act (DEAct), which seeks to tackle internet piracy but also risks targeting innocent internet users with disconnection and or court action. Not to mention the Home Office’s Communications Data Bill that would expand the country’s existing internet snooping laws (data retention) and force ISPs into logging a much bigger slice of everybody’s online activity; irrespective of whether or not you’ve committed a crime.

On top of that the forthcoming DCMS Communications Bill (not to be confused with the Comms Data Bill) could potentially include new powers to censor adult internet content and or websites that facilitate copyright infringement (we won’t know for sure until the first proper White Paper is released during early 2013).

Meanwhile few can have failed to notice all of the recent stories about cyber-bullying, with Twitter and Facebook users often being arrested for posting the odd offensive message towards celebrities (well they clearly wouldn’t have enough police to do that for the rest of us). This seems like a somewhat ridiculous waste of police time when there are internet users whom suffer from very real and persistent online stalking and abuse.

We note from Hague’s speech that he expects internet users to “show tolerance and respect for diversity of language, culture and ideas“, which is a fine principal but in reality you can’t micro-manage free speech quite so easily. Since when did politicians, or even many newspapers, show respect for their rivals “ideas“? Normal people swear, curse, create silly pictures, say things you’ll disagree with and do all sorts of stuff that one might, depending upon perspective, consider to be disrespectful (comedians do this all the time).

Clearly rules are still needed to help tackle the extremes but the reality is that freedom of speech often means having to tolerate some of the bad in order to preserve the good.

By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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