"Freedom of expression cuts to the very heart of the debate about the future of cyberspace"

Foreign Secretary William Hague spoke at the beginning of a Freedom of expression on the internet event as part of the London Conference on Cyberspace.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon William Hague

Welcome to the London Conference on Cyberspace. It is good to see colleagues from all over the world and from so many fields. I am grateful to Wilton Park for arranging for such an important debate to open our proceedings today.

Freedom of expression cuts to the very heart of the debate about the future of cyberspace.

The internet allows people who would otherwise never meet or never make their voices heard to reach a potentially unlimited audience; to forge new connections and mobilise behind ideas, and to address local problems or to change the course of governments and history.


One of the parts of my job I most enjoy is the exchange of views with people all over the world through Twitter - whether it is the person who sent me a youtube video of a speech on foreign policy a few days ago, recommending that I watch it, or the people who tweeted me issues that they wanted me to raise at the Commonwealth meeting in Australia last week - or even the frustrated travellers who flag up difficulties they have encountered with visa services in a particular country. Social media has reduced the distance between politicians and citizens to a dramatic and hugely positive degree.

So the internet is helping to make governments more transparent and accountable to people. Human rights abuses now come to light in an instant. You only have to compare how long it took to discover the atrocities committed in the former Yugoslavia with the speed at which we learnt about the shooting of the young student Neda Soltan in Iran or events on the ground in Libya, to see just what a powerful force social media now and the internet are in foreign policy as in every other walk of life.

But you will also know cyberspace can also be used to repress or to round up political opponents and to persecute them. There are real threats to freedom of expression on the internet. Another, growing problem is that many countries do not agree with us that the internet should be open, accessible to all, and be based on the free exchange of ideas and information.

Too many states around the world are seeking to go beyond legitimate interference or disagree with us about what constitutes ‘legitimate’ behaviour. Some governments block online services and content, imposing restrictive regulation, or incorporate surveillance tools into their internet infrastructure so that they can identify activists and critics. Such actions either directly restrict freedom of expression or aim to deter political debate.

We believe that there is nothing better for the health and vibrancy of democracy than the jostle, humour and rivalry of free speech. As the great lawyer Thomas Erskine said in defence of the campaigner Thomas Paine in the 1790s, “let reason be opposed to reason, and argument to argument, and every good government will be safe”.

I will be making a speech to the conference later on setting out the UK’s approach to the future of cyberspace. At its heart is a simple proposition: that behaviour that is unacceptable in the ‘real’ world is also unacceptable in cyberspace. This emphaticvally includes the curtailing of human rights.

Human rights are universal, and apply online as much as they do offline.

Freedom of expression and a free media are fundamental building-blocks of democracy. Everyone has the right to free and uncensored access to the internet. States should only interfere with these rights in exceptional situations and then only if it is appropriate, effective, proportionate and in accordance with international legal obligations.

People must be allowed to discuss and debate issues, challenge their governments and make informed decisions.

We saw in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya that cutting off the internet, blocking Facebook, jamming Al Jazeera, intimidating journalists and imprisoning bloggers does not create stability or make grievances go away. Journalists and bloggers must be allowed to express themselves freely and safely and within international standards. The idea of freedom cannot be contained behind bars, no matter how strong the lock.

Britain will always be on the side of those aspiring to greater political and economic freedom anywhere in the world. We will always champion freedom of expression on the internet as well as in every other aspect of life. I can assure you that this will be very much at the centre of discussions here at the London Cyber Conference, and look forward to hearing your ideas.

Updates to this page

Published 1 November 2011