Getting wired: The right kind of Net politics

As governments try to control the Net, our Parliament's sites show how it should be used.

As governments try to control the Net, our Parliament's sites show how it should be used.

It is a truism that knowledge is power, so it was perhaps inevitable that the rise of the Internet, with its ability to bring an unparalleled range of information to anyone with a connection, should be perceived by governments the world over as a threat.

For totalitarian regimes, the solution has been to ban the Internet altogether, or restrict it so severely as to nullify most of its benefits. But in countries that like to think of themselves as liberal and democratic, such a crude approach has never been an option. Instead, governments have invoked the usual bogeymen - drug dealers and pornographers at first, more recently terrorists - to justify increasingly Draconian legislation.

In the UK this culminated in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Act 2000, which grants to law-enforcement agencies extensive powers to intercept and store Internet communications. For a depressing reminder of how universal the opposition to this bad piece of law-making was - from all shades of the political spectrum - have a look at the comprehensive resources at the Foundation for Information Policy Research.

What is worse is the fact that it looks like this particular kind of insanity is about to be exported to the rest of Europe, following in the wake of other great British diseases such as BSE. As the Statewatch Observatory on Surveillance in Europe reports , there is a real risk that data surveillance powers similar to those in the RIP Act are about to be authorised across Europe.

Against this dismal background of executive arrogance and contempt for the views of relevant experts, it comes as something of a pleasant surprise to find that Parliament's own Web site - which sports one of the coolest URLs on the Net - is, despite its drab, civil service kind of exterior, a real goldmine of information and a model of transparent government.

As the full site map indicates, there are pages devoted to both the House of Commons and the House of Lords . As you might hope, acts of Parliament are available , as are statutory instruments. There are also other House of Commons publications online , including the Weekly Information Bulletin .

But the most important information online is Hansard, the verbatim transcripts of Parliamentary debates, both for the House of Commons and the House of Lords .

The value of the ready availability and quick turnaround of this record should not be underestimated: after all, it is just the kind of check on the governmental process that democracies need. This makes a recent move to provide real-time access to Parliamentary debates even more commendable. The suggestive .tv domain actually refers to the country Tuvalu, but has been pressed into service for less exotic purposes.

To be even better, these video streams could be archived, indexed and cross-referenced to Hansard material. The excellent search engine already available for written material suggests that this is not such an impossible dream.

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