For all the talk about tackling online crime at this week’s London Conference on Cyberspace, what UK politicians really proved is how little they get the digital world, says silicon.com’s Nick Heath.

“The biggest threat to the internet is from misguided and overreaching government policy,” Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, told an international computer crime conference in London this week.

Lucky, then, that UK politicians at the event – from prime minister David Cameron to foreign secretary William Hague – were falling over themselves to pledge their commitment to safeguarding the free flow of information online.

When it comes to online regulation, Cameron said, “We cannot go down the heavy-handed route. Do that and we’ll crush all that’s good about the internet.” While Hague opined, “We will always champion freedom of expression on the internet”.

Sadly, the rhetoric doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Cameron and Hague may have sworn fealty to an unfettered internet but the UK government continues to back laws that will make it easier for corporations and states to monitor online activity and cut off internet access.

David Cameron

The rhetoric of politicians such as UK prime minister David Cameron doesn’t stand up to scrutinyCreative Commons: World Economic Forum

One such law is the UK’s Digital Economy Act – legislation drawn up under the Labour government but supported by the present coalition. The Act paves the way for people to be disconnected from the internet if they are suspected of downloading copyrighted material, and compels ISPs to collect more data on how subscribers use the internet.

ISPs BT and TalkTalk have mounted a legal challenge to the legislation, which they say infringes the “basic rights and freedoms” of their customers and doesn’t acknowledge the technical difficulty of establishing that the appropriate person or household is being cut off.

And UK law doesn’t only lay the groundwork for individuals to be cut off from the internet. It is also being used to block access to a wider range of websites than ever before. A precedent for blocking sites accused of illegal file-sharing was set recently, when the High Court ordered BT to prevent its subscribers from accessing the file-sharing website Newzbin2, as well as any other sites it points to.

Nor can the UK government claim an unblemished record on internet censorship and online snooping. Yesterday’s speech by Hague criticised foreign powers “for incorporating surveillance tools into their internet infrastructure”.

Yet the coalition government is continuing to implement a programme of work aimed at giving police and security agencies the ability to obtain and intercept data flowing over the internet – in the continuation of a multibillion-pound programme of work started under Labour.

Meanwhile, UK police are reportedly already using technology that allows for large-scale surveillance of mobile internet comms. According to The Guardian, the Metropolitan Police recently purchased technology that can…

 

…gather communications from thousands of mobile phone users from across a large area and block their mobile phone signal.

And despite Hague telling the conference that the UK government now rejects “the view that government suppression of the internet, phone networks and social media at times of unrest is acceptable”, it was Cameron himself who, in the wake of England’s riots in August, said the government was considering the need for new powers to shut down social networks during times of unrest.

All told, the UK government actively supports laws and technology that allow the state and companies to censor access to the internet and monitor how it is used.

For Cameron and Hague to talk of their commitment to light-touch regulation and to pretend the problems of piracy, IP theft and other illegal activity online can be tackled at no cost to basic internet freedoms is a nonsense.

What is perhaps more disingenuous, and more troubling, are the meaningless figures that UK politicians choose to trot out as evidence of the scale of the online threat.

Hague told the conference that online crime is growing exponentially. His proof? Security vendors, he said, had detected more than six million unique types of malware in the first three months of the year.

Six million sounds like a large number but as Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant with security vendor Sophos, told silicon.com: “Counting malware is pretty meaningless these days. Yes, we see about 150,000 new unique samples coming into SophosLabs every day – but what does that actually mean to the user? After all, the vast majority of those samples are variants of malware we have seen in the past and may even be already proactively protected against”.

Similarly, in his speech to this week’s conference, Cameron trotted out official estimates that online crime costs the UK £27bn each year. The problem with these stats is that even the government admits they are largely based on guesswork. Speaking at the time the figures were first announced, the then security minister Baroness Pauline Neville-Jones, said: “One of the issues is that the information base is poor and that we need to flesh it out over time. The figures you are getting today are estimates,” she said.

Authorities need to start capturing reports of online crime in detail. Then perhaps our government could get a better grip on the scale of the problem and how to deal with it.

When UK cabinet members willingly repeat such meaningless and shaky figures about online crime, it raises this troubling question: How can politicians successfully draw up new laws to tackle a problem they don’t appear to understand?.