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Cyberspace conference: All talk and no action

Let's talk about the possibility of talking about what to do

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LCC comment On the first day of the London Conference on Cyberspace (LCC), an optimistic delegate stood up and prefaced his question to the panel with congratulations on the first steps in what he was sure would become known as "The London Cyber Process".

It was an optimism the Foreign Office, which was hosting the summit, seemed to share to a certain extent before the event. The talk in the run-up to the conference was all about deciding the future of cyberspace, and Foreign Secretary William Hague's opening remarks talked of "developing firm ideas and proposals with real political and diplomatic weight".

Not that there weren't cautionary words, too: when Hague first began to talk about the conference back in February it was all about "laying the basis for agreement on a set of standards", which was a suitably vague political message that suggested it'd be great if something happened but no one was counting on it.

But in the end the conference didn't seem to have even the beginning of any agreements on what should be done.

Everyone thought that the digital divide should be closed, but no one seemed to have any idea how to do it - other than hoping that service providers just get on with it themselves or wishing that countries that are poor, or where wealth was spread unevenly, would eventually get richer or fairer.

Everyone agreed that cyber threats were real and nasty - be they from terrorists, state-sponsored or criminal gangs - but their suggestions on what to do were just outlines of the existing debates: we should have more accountability and identification online or net users should be anonymous no matter what. Or even worse, there was the bit-of-both suggestion: we should have more accountability, but we shouldn't get rid of anonymity. Well put, sir, but how exactly are we going to do that?

Law enforcement officials who spoke said they were getting some help from technology companies but they needed more, and the internet companies said they weren't getting enough help from the police. Meanwhile, they all agreed that they all needed more training, more knowledge and more skills dealing with cybercrime.

The US and the UK were emphatic on their agreement that the web should be free and open, with keynotes from leaders including US Vice-President Joe Biden and UK Prime Minister David Cameron, but those who might have meaningfully disagreed with them – for instance Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin or Chinese President Hu Jintao – were nowhere to be seen.

And anyway, it didn't matter what any government heads said because everyone agreed that governments were not, and should not be, in control of the internet. Which rather made you wonder what the point of them espousing on the issue was.

Not every viewpoint heard

There's no question that the subject of the internet is a thorny one for governments, individuals and the private sector. Just like in the real world, which as conference speakers kept emphasising is exactly like the online world, there are so many viewpoints and considerations to take into account.

The real problem of the conference was that they didn't take all these views into account at all. The usual liberal let's-make-everyone-free-and-democratic-and-spend-lots viewpoint was represented and the arguments were focused on the best way to do that.

So not only did they not make much progress towards the end that most delegates said they wanted, they also ignored the great big swathe of people that will be coming online in the next decade who might not be allowed to want it – or more controversially, might not want it at all.

After all, is democracy working all that well? A lot of people in the enlightened West would say it wasn't anymore: citizens are voting with their feet by not voting at all. And what was Hague, a former Conservative Party leader, doing sitting on the liberal side of the fence anyway? Oh that's right, they've all decided to camouflage themselves as each other so as not to confuse the public with their differences.

And good old liberal capitalism, is that working out the way we all planned? Again, not too well recently, since the Euro might collapse any day now and there's a good chance that much-publicised double dip is on its way, while tons of people are still out of work and no one's spending much any more.

Not that tyranny or communism or socialism or autocracy or religious leadership are necessarily the answer either, but in a debate that doesn't even make room for other viewpoints, it seems quite unlikely that any new viewpoint that could possibly provide the answer will be considered.

The best takeaway from the whole event was that cyberspace is like the real world, there's no doubt about that. And like the real world, maybe it's time for some new ideas rather than the tired rehashing of the old. ®

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