Should Big Brother control the Net?

For the first time in 33 years the Real Time Club last week opened its doors to a newspaper to report on one of its events....

For the first time in 33 years the Real Time Club last week opened its doors to a newspaper to report on one of its events. The occasion was to debate fundamental issues about the role of governments as the Internet revolution moves fully mainstream

The debate was attended by 95 people who will influence and shape the thoughts of decision makers on this issue as it becomes more widely discussed in the national media and government over the coming months. John Riley reports

The motion:

This house believes that "Control of the Internet by governments is imperative for the well being of society"

The Real Time Club

The Real Time Club was formed in 1967 by a group of young entrepreneurs who were then at the outset of distinguished careers in information technology.

The original objective of the club was to put pressure on the Post Office (which at that time controlled telecommunications) to liberalise restrictive rules on data communications and to speed up the provision of modems and lines for this purpose. This was soon achieved, and the club then continued as a combination of social organisation, business network, and occasional thinktank-cum-pressure group in support of the use of ICT and of the UK ICT industry. The club has given evidence to House of Commons Select Committees on several occasions, either directly or in writing.

Today, 32 years later, the club has a membership of about 150, drawn from all sections of the UK ICT community - the industry itself, users, academia, politics, the civil service, the City, and the media. The club currently has three major "think-tank/pressure group" interests in progress: education, finance, and quantum computing.

FOR

Harold Thimbleby is Professor of Computing Research, computing science department, Middlesex University. He is a co-author of the Church of England's report on the Internet: Cybernauts Awake! Ethical and Spiritual Implications of Cyberspace

In every area of life where things happen - from midwifery to MoTs - we recognise the need for statutory regulation, often with penal sanctions to dissuade the inevitable criminal elements.

"The first point to make is that the Internet is already controlled. Microsoft, AOL and others control, by their closed programmes, what we do. They are not about to tell us details, as the recent Microsoft/US Department of Justice case made clear.

"Governments already controls many aspects of Internet business, too. It provides legal frameworks, such as contract law, which enable businesses to function.

"A major benefit of government control is that you can go to HMSO and get, for example, the health and safety regulations. If you want to change it you can get involved with the political processes of the country.

"The Internet has changed. When it started, cheap notions of 'free speech' flourished. By 'cheap', I mean ignoring the costs, including political accountability. But the Internet now interacts with the real world. For example, our pensions depend on e-investment, and so on.

"In civilised societies, we have always needed regulation. After much struggle, we have come to realise regulatory frameworks, such as contract law, are best laid down by representative governments. As individuals we co-regulate our activities within those frameworks, designed within constitutional and human rights safeguards.

"The only frameworks that can handle the scale and significance - and temptations - of the worldwide Internet are governmental and inter-governmental.

"You will all have been frustrated by the problems of using computers. They're unreliable, and you have to keep upgrading to get bugs fixed. In short, quality of service is atrocious.

"It's hard to think of another industry that cost consumers so much, and that denies responsibility for quality. It's got to change if the Internet is going to be successful, but it will not, unless governments regulate it.

"Obsolescence leads to waste. We bury nearly a million tonnes of electronics annually in the UK alone. Every computer bought is another one buried. It isn't financially competitive to recycle, yet we can't sustain this. It has taken a European Directive to wake us up to such environmental issues. Only governments can impose on industry priorities that are not in industry's short-term interests, but which are for society's well-being.

Orel de Guzman's Lovebug did £6bn worth of damage in the UK, but he can't be charged. There is no redress. This is an argument for government regulation. Had he broken a law, and we had jurisdiction, appropriate action would have been taken, and he'd have been deterred by the probability of prosecution.

"Governments are our representatives, and the regulatory frameworks they impose come from us, at least while we support democracy. If they are not quite right, they can be revised. We know they are going to adhere to fundamental principles: principles of proportionality, separation of powers, due process, and so on. Governmental control promotes public good.

Brian Paterson is head of the encryption co-ordination unit, The Home Office

"A fundamental aim of government is to protect the safety of its citizens. For that reason it is essential that governments should certainly control abuse of the Internet.

"The Internet provides a huge opportunity for developing economic wealth, but it also challenges the safety of its users and of citizens as a whole.

"Lack of trust is a major inhibitor of growth in e-commerce. In one international survey 26% of contributors identified lack of trust as the most significant barrier to e-commerce. Government has a duty to respond to this situation, both directly and by encouraging the industry itself to take action.

"Criminals have been quick to take advantage of the new opportunities provided by the Internet. For example, it is estimated that 4% of the revenues of the tightest run dotcom businesses are destroyed by fraud - up to 20% of others.

"The police see a possible association between use of the Internet to collect paedophile images and physically abusive behaviour.

"Some people have used the Internet to harass individuals causing deep distress.

"Governments must respond to such things.

"For example, it is implementing the 'high tech crime strategy' to ensure those reporting crime get a helpful and informed response; working with the Internet Watch Foundation to deal with criminal or harmful Web content; and collaborating with industry on the Scheme kitemark for e-commerce trust services.

"Governments are also working to combat attacks on the infrastructure of the Internet itself, such as hacking, denial of service attacks, or viruses.

The Council of Europe, for example, is working to update the legal framework within Europe, and in the UK the Computer Misuse Act deals with hacking.

"Criminals also use the Internet to communicate so interception is a key tool in our struggle to control some of the most serious organised criminals in the UK.

"To sum up, the power of governments must always be constrained. But within the framework of democratic accountability and the law, including the Human Rights Act, government action is the only way to protect your safety. Do those opposing the motion really want to prevent the Rule of Law?

AGAINST

Tricia Drakes, chairwoman of the Internet Society of England's Advisory Board and deputy master of the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists

The Internet is for everyone, and besides, how can governments regulate something that knows no national boundaries?

"We are still in the midst of the evolving Internet revolution which is bringing fundamental, radical transformation in every area of business and society," she continued. "However, the instinct for governments is to take control through regulation. But the Internet is a global revolution open to us all to contribute and any attempt to hold it back threatens to stifle the good it can do for the well-being of society.

"The Internet is everywhere, all of the time," she stressed.

"Its freedom has enabled it to thrive to produce positive benefits everywhere - not just for business but for education, social welfare and for society in general. This revolution still has much further to go. However, governments, in their desire for control, focus on the negative aspects of the Internet rather than the positive. They argue from a position of ignorance - many politicians and government officials do not really understand what the Internet is about or how it works. Many do not even use it," she said. So how then can governments possibly control the Internet for the well being of society?

"Regulation will only impede progress here. Attempts to regulate e-business in any one country will drive new business away to others that are not regulated. Attempts to regulate general connectivity will affect us all and our civil rights. Even if government censorship and control were the answer to prevent abuses there is no guarantee that they would work, as the Internet is global. Effectiveness would depend on international agreements across global boundaries.

"There is a general ignorance about what is needed to ensure that the Internet makes a positive contribution to society - none of us know, least of all governments. We need a general, fundamental, healthy debate by all involved in the Internet to help mould what is needed to achieve this. Until we have a clearer idea of what is possible and practical the role for governments is unclear and there is no place for regulation."

Christine Maxwell is vice chair of the Internet Society, founder of CHILIAD Inc, and creator of the Magellan online directory.

"Until we lose our freedom we don't realise how valuable it is. If government really did regulate the Internet, 99.99% of us would live to regret letting it happen.

"Take, for example, the freedom to find a place to go to look up government regulations themselves. How many go to Her Majesty's Stationery Office for information and how many can much more easily visit government Web sites. The Government has invested a huge effort into putting up Web sites so millions of people can find out things far more easily than they ever could before.

"However, this new freedom of information access opened up by the Internet would be compromised by government regulation.

"Governments say that regulation will help promote trust for e-commerce. Trust is very important for the Internet, but what do we mean by it? How do we measure it? For example, surveys have found that 26% of people in the UK say they lack trust in e-commerce because of the security issues. However, according to polls, 52% say they lack trust in Tony Blair!

"Laws are made to help. In a civilised society the framework of law should never interfere with communications - that can only lead towards the controls countries like Burma employ.

"The fundamental issue is that everyone has to be able to understand the advantages of having access to the Internet. Ultimately, good interface design can only be achieved when program engineers are not asked to be good interface design engineers as well. It has to be spread out beyond the computer engineers to everyone. Lack of regulation encourages such a climate to flourish. The last thing we want is for governments to control the Internet infrastructure.

"The debate should be about the burdens of proof. The Internet raises problems, such as hacking, but the real question is that although we have the technology, to be effective regulation has to be cost effective"

"The Government can control the Internet. For example, the Financial Services Authority says that anything on the Internet to do with finance can be viewed by them"

"People need to be protected from their own stupidity and from believing the last thing they have been told"

"The Government's key role in a democracy is to reach a consensus about the common good. What is the common good on the Internet? We don't know because it is a new world order, but at least we have the mechanism to reach it"

"Everyone says the RIP Act is there to control criminal activity, but any criminal knows that all he has to do is communicate directly with another to agreed times"

The result:

The motion was lost. Of the 95 debaters, 14 voted for the motion and 45 against.

This was last published in September 2000

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