Before being appropriated by Channel Four for the likes of 'bubbly' Helen and 'camp' Brian, the Big Brother moniker was a useful epithet for the worst excesses of government and its agencies. But in true Orwellian spirit, the US, ably assisted by its lieutenants in the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, has created an all-seeing, all-knowing electronic version, which could have major implications for the future of the Web. The Echelon surveillance system is a global electronic communication monitoring system run by the five aforementioned states. Its existence is denied by US officials, but over the last year has been the subject of investigation by the European Parliament. Whilst it monitors phone calls, satellite transmissions, as well as Internet traffic, it is the explosion in Web use which has prompted the latest concerns. Critics claim the fight against terrorism and child pornography is merely a smokescreen for clandestine action which amounts to no more than industrial espionage and what the EU calls "serious interference with an individual's exercise of the right to privacy."
Armed only with straight cucumbers, it was no surprise when a visiting delegation from the European Parliamentary committee was stonewalled by the US government. But the eurocrats have gone on record as saying the existence of Echelon is "no longer in doubt" and that bastion of democracy, the EU parliament, is expected to vote on a final resolution regarding abuses of the system in the autumn. In the meantime, the Echelon inquiry raises a fundamental issue: who or what owns the Web? Whilst the origins of the Internet can be traced back to the US defence programme, its present incarnation is down to the structures, or lack of them, created by its early public adherents. Public perception is already suspicious of Internet security, particularly where financial transactions are involved. If the Web is to be anything other than a cheap alternative to letter writing and home to the ramblings of anarchists, football fanatics, self-publicists and porn merchants, the public will need reassuring they're not being monitored at every click of the mouse.
Business perception of the public's attitude to the Web has been shown to be as accurate as a dot.com's profit forecast. And whilst consumer business is slowly increasing over the Internet, its use is tentative and will need further work to shore up its shaky electronic infrastructure. It needs to be a secure environment both from within, protecting users from the electronic muggers that prowl the darker recesses of the electronic highway, and from without, with strong defences against the machinations of the powerful.
With the proliferation and increasing power of mobile technology, the Internet has the potential to be a part of a true information age. If allowed, it can disseminate knowledge, or what the modern day father of the Web, Tim Berners-Lee, calls a "universal medium for sharing information." But let's just be careful who or what we share it with.
Description: World Wide Web consortium
Strengths: More information than you can throw a stick at. Home to Tim Berners-Lee
Weaknesses: Dry as the Gobi desert
Verdict: Rather wordy, but technically detailed
Description: American Civil Liberties Union watches the watchers
Strengths: Fascinating, yet disturbing, overview of modern day James Bonds
Weaknesses: Text, text and more text
Verdict: Fine example of the power of the web to disseminate
Description: Home of the Internet?
Strengths: Informative and entertaining look at THE valley. Fascinating history of the internet from 1858
Weaknesses: Doesn't mention the dot.com fallout
Verdict: Could do with an update, but still worth the visit
This was first published in September 2001