William Gibson, the science fiction author who coined the term ‘cyberspace’ in his 1982 short story Burning Chrome, later dismissed the word as "essentially meaningless".
And yet, 20 years later that essentially meaningless word could be found emblazoned across the front of Westminster’s Queen Elizabeth II conference centre, announcing an event that had attracted speakers including prime minister David Cameron and US vice president Joe Biden: the London Conference on Cyberspace, as organised by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
The choice of title did not go unremarked. "No one says ‘cyberspace!’" commented one young Twitter user. Others dismissed the event as just a conference about the Internet that had been given a archaic name by out-of-touch bureaucrats.
But ‘cyberspace’ does not just mean ‘the Internet’. Technologically it may be meaningless, but the term has been adopted by the international community as a cipher for the diplomatic, legal, political and military sphere in which nation states and their respective approaches to information technology are forced to coexist.
The core of the London Conference on Cyberspace was a diplomatic meeting to discuss the rules of engagement in this theoretical space. There were many sessions on the conference programme about other topics, such as the social benefits of the Internet, and these could have taken place any time in the last 15 to 20 years. But according to sources privy to the organisation of the event, these were added late in the day.
Zahid Jamil, a legal advisor to the Commonwealth’s Cyber Crime Initiative, said the choice the word ‘cyberspace’ reflected the objective of the conference. “Some people have criticised the name, but I think its very appropriate,” he said. “We’re talking about a space, just like the sea, and the air, and outer space, and the norms of behaviour for nation states within that space.”
Former defence secretary Lord John Reid, made a similar remark. “Cyber’ is not just a technology, it is a new environment; it is like the sea or the air, it runs through everything,” he said in one session. “We know how difficult it was to assert legal agreement on the sea – it took two centuries, and then only because we had empires to enforce it."
In his role as chair of University College London’s Institute for Security and Resilience Studies, Reid has called for the development of a ‘cyber doctrine’, “a flexible series of principles that could be adopted nationally … without the obligations of a legal framework.”
This call for “norms of behaviour in cyberspace” echoed throughout the conference. Foreign secretary William Hague proposed a set of principles that he hoped would guide international consensus, including the need for governments to act in accordance with international law and need for cyberspace to remain open to the free flow of ideas, information and expression.
Joe Biden, filling in for secretary of state Hilary Clinton via video link, called on “countries everywhere to join in the bet we’ve made … that by building a global consensus around universal value and shared norms, we can together preserve the Internet as an open space for all.”
From a Western point of view, the rhetoric sounds platitudinous, but these ‘norms of behaviour’ are not endorsed by everyone.
In September, and in clear anticipation of the London conference, China, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan submitted their own international code of conduct for information security to the United Nations. It contains much of the same sentiment about the importance of the Internet to modern society as was heard at the conference, but certain phrases reveal a different perspective.
For example, the code calls on states to “cooperate in … curbing dissemination of information which incites terrorism, secessionism, extremism or undermines other countries’ political, economic and social stability, as well as their spiritual and cultural environment.” In other words, it calls on UN countries to help one another censor dissent.
Striking a balance
Building consensus against this code of conduct was clearly one of the conference’s main aims. As many commentators have observed, however, neither the US nor the UK have an unblemished record when it comes to Internet censorship.
Peter Sommer, a professor at the London School of Economics and one of the UK’s leading academics on cyberspace, says that despite their overtures to the open Internet, politicians from both sides of the Atlantic are happy to discuss censorship when it is politically expedient.
“When something nasty happens on the Internet, there will be a story on Fox News or in the Daily Mail about how the government is being weak, and politicians will immediately start talking about warrantless wiretapping and cracking down,” he explains. “They flip-flop between talking about the social and commercial benefits of the Internet and then saying its a nasty thing we need to control, with no mechanism for saying how you actually resolve that balance.”
Sommer says the London conference failed to move the international community any closer to finding that balance. For example, there was very little discussion of the existing machinery for policing the web, such as the UN-backed Internet Governance Forum.
“If you think the IGF isn’t working – and there are people who do think that – then we need a discussion of why it isn’t working and how we are going to do to make it work or replace it,” he says. “Instead, they announced that this was the start of a new process, as if these issues haven’t been around for years.”
This may reflect the siloed nature of government, Sommer suspects, and the fact that cyberspace has only recently emerged as a foreign policy issue. Hilary Clinton, who has made some powerful speeches in the last 18 months about the US’ dedication to an open Internet, said as recently as 2009 that she “wouldn’t know a Twitter from a tweeter, but apparently its very important”.
But if the US and UK occasionally act in ways that do not match their rhetoric, it is simply realpolitik in action, argues Zahid Jamil.
“Every country has their position and their national interests, and expecting anyone not to protect their national interests would be unrealistic,” he says. “What’s more important is that there are countries that believe an open Internet, and that are prepared to engage in a discussion in a pro-active manner.”
But did the conference succeed in moving the international community towards the consensus that the UK and US are pursuing? A comment made by Russia’s representative Andrey Krutskikh, that “information security must not suppress freedom”, is cause for optimism, says Jamil.
Professor Sommer is not as convinced. “I wonder about the sincerity of the remark.”