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Risks and rewards of Cyberspace

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London: Not many events attract as eclectic a gathering as US vice president Joe Biden and Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, or British prime minister David Cameron and Yemini activist Atiaf Alwazir, but the London Conference on Cyberspace this week did just that.

The conference, hosted by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, explored topics ranging from the economic and social benefits of cyberspace, to its' consequences for political systems and personal freedoms.

A heavy-weight consulting presence was led by James Manyika, director and senior partner, McKinsey & Company.

His contribution to a pivotal session on Economic Growth and Development, drew on a paper written for the conference with fellow McKinsey &Co director Charles Roxburgh.

Their paper, The great transformer: The impact of the Internet on economic growth and prosperity", argues that, "The Internet is changing the way we work, socialize, create and share information, and organize the flow of people, ideas, and things around the globe. Yet the magnitude of this transformation is still underappreciated. The Internet accounted for 21 percent of the GDP growth in mature economies over the past 5 years. In that time, we went from a few thousand students accessing Facebook to more than 800 million users around the world, including many leading firms, who regularly update their pages and share content. While large enterprises and national economies have reaped major benefits from this technological revolution, individual consumers and small, upstart entrepreneurs have been some of the greatest beneficiaries from the Internet's empowering influence. If Internet were a sector, it would have a greater weight in GDP than agriculture or utilities."

Elsewhere, consultants from PwC, led by cyber securitydirector William Beer, hosted "Raising awareness for Government and business Leaders — What a Cyber Attack Looks Like." The session discussed emerging cyber security issues and what can be done to protect organisations, and featured a "real time cyber crisis" dramatised by actors to demonstrate what can happen when an organisation suffers a cyber security breach.

Earlier this week Beer urged senior business leaders toget involved withcyber security issues.

Opening the conference, one of the first of its kind to be held, Foreign Secretary William Hague remarked yesterday, "

"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.

"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 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."

The full text of William Hague's speech is here.

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