Foreign Secretary William Hague warned on Tuesday that a "darker scenario" could prevail if governments do not ensure safe and reliable internet access.
He said governments will face threats to critical infrastructure while private businesses will face attacks aimed at stealing intellectual property unless successful prosecutions against cybercriminals become "the norm, rather than the exception."
Hague kicked off the London Conference on Cyberspace, a two-day meeting of government officials, Internet activists and executives from companies including Google and Facebook.
It is the first conference of its kind and aims to lay the foundation for future discussions among countries on issues such as censorship, online rights, cybersecurity and international development.
Hague proposed seven "rules of the road" for cyberspace that would take the place of what he called a "cyber free for all." The principles should form a basis for a broader agreement about behavior in cyberspace, he said.
The tenets revolve around equal Internet access among citizens, the tolerance of ideas, the free flow of information and privacy and intellectual property protections. Other principles involve fighting cybercrime, creating a competitive environment for networks and services and the need for governments to act in accordance with international law.
The conference's wide-ranging agenda isn't expected to produce a concrete agreement on any of the topics, but lay the groundwork for follow-up meetings. Hungary has agreed to hold a similar meeting in 2012 covering the norms of behavior in cyberspace, followed by South Korea in 2013.
One of the issues countries are concerned about is how to deal with so-called cyberwarfare, or the use of the Internet to carry out attacks intended to harm another country.
India's Minister of Communications, Sachin Pilot, said his country saw a wave of attacks when the country hosted the Commonwealth Games in Delhi in 2010. "Ensuring IT security is hard because networks can be attacked from anywhere in the world," Pilot said.
Pilot said there are a variety of motivations for cyberattacks, ranging from political causes to fraud, crime and casual hacking. But the "footprints" for those attacks are easy to hide, he said. India has called for discussions on how the Geneva Convention should apply, he said.
On the private industry side, Facebook's director of European public policy, Richard Allan, said the first fear with cyberattacks is that bad actors could cause a "catastrophic failure" in Internet infrastructure. There are also concerns that the cost to defend networks could spiral out of control while also causing more "friction" for people trying to use the systems.
Facebook has resorted to measures such as asking users to identify photos of their friends in order to authenticate people when they're logging in from different locations. But employing more security measures increases costs and can also act as a barrier to access, Allan said.