Internet must be developed on democratic principles, says Alun Michael

The development of the internet should be based on "people-centric" principles, says MP Alun Michael, who represents the UK at the UN's Internet Governance Forum (IGF).

The development of the internet should be based on "people-centric" principles, says MP Alun Michael, who represents the UK at the UN's Internet Governance Forum (IGF).

Alun Michael told Computer Weekly that governments' use of the internet to track and trace protesters, and criminals' use of the net to commit crimes, did not mean top-down management of the net was needed.

"All new technical advances can be a double edged sword," he said. All aspects had to be correctly managed, on behalf of everyone; or they could be manipulated to the detriment of mankind, he said.

"Online criminals too are well-organised to exploit the web. That isn't a case for concentrated top-down regulation of the internet - it is a plea for a people-centric approach, following the co-operative principles of the Internet Governance Forum process," he said.

Michael was responding to the recent Parliamentary IT committee's (Pitcom) assessment of the use of advanced mobile technology in the current political unrest in the Middle East and Africa.

Michael said: "The increasing use of mobile technology hasn't just made it easier for us in developed countries to contact each other - it's used in the developing world to provide banking services, medical and veterinary advice and to disseminate knowledge on best agricultural practice.

"The image of an African herdsman checking livestock prices on his mobile phone illustrates the potential impact for the poorest and most remote countries in the world," he said.

Michael said protesters in Africa and the Middle East had used it to co-ordinate and publicise their efforts. "But governments in the region have used it to their advantage too, as mobile technology can be used to pin-point the location of protesters," he said.

The Pitcom report noted that Egypt's former government sought to slow down the process of change by instructing mobile phone companies to suspend coverage, raising questions over the limits and risk to their autonomy.

It also noted that Egypt was a "pinch-point" for undersea cables east of Suez, notably India. There were other pinch-points, notably the UK and the US eastern seaboard. Local action to cut off political opposition could have unpredictable global consequences for communications traffic, the Pitcom report said.

Ever since the US government passed management of the internet to the private sector in 2003, uptake has sky-rocketed. When the US government privatised the internet in April 1995, the number of users it connected via the Internet Protocol grew from 16 million to two billion today.

But the future of the internet is far from clear. Governments from the US to China are keen to lock it down or otherwise limit the free distribution of content. Key internet figures such as Vint Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee have warned that restrictions on the net could harm global economic development and innovation.

A driving force behind the push to gain more control over the internet is the desire for "rights holders" to protect online material. There are few supporters of copyright theft, but many critics of proposed remedies argue they won't work and there are too few legal and cost-related alternative sources.

Computer Weekly reported recently that the European Commission had abandoned talks on a pan-European agreement on online file sharing. These talks might have led to more legal sources for copyright material.

Meanwhile, the US appears to want to export the provisions of its punitive Digital Millennium Copyright Act to other countries, and to make an integral part of the global trade environment.

The IGF, which is an all-government body, is currently preparing to debate how much control should vest with the private sector.

"The challenge is to nurture the internet as an instrument for fuelling democracy while keeping pace with technology," Michael said.

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