Prospect -

Big business and techie libertarians dominate debate about the internet. The rest of us need to catch up.

Internet activists are becoming better organised and financed. They have an ideology too, a kind of libertarian anti-politics. For many of them, the internetís ability to bypass scrutiny by public bodies is its greatest virtue. Predictably, the debate early in 2000 about the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Bill, which sought to codify the powers of the police in relation to the internet and data encryption, became a rallying point for this freemasonry of the net.

The Foundation for Information Policy Research (FIPR), one of the main bodies to draw together internet activists, was at the centre of the campaign against the bill. In a major part of its activities, briefing the media, the FIPR succeeded brilliantly, persuading many journalists to parrot its libertarian anti-RIP line.

The FIPR, with an advisory council boasting many of the most prominent internet cheerleaders and the leading lawyers in the field, was ready and waiting when the RIP debate began. So who funded the FIPR in that first year of its existence? Microsoft, 100 per cent. Who sits on the FIPRís governing council and is one of its trustees? Roger Needham, managing director of Microsoft Research.

In the US, if big business wants certain things to emerge in the public domain which it does not want to say itself, it funds organisations known as surrogates. The FIPR has never denied that it has been funded by Microsoft. And I am sure that the distinguished members of the FIPR's advisory council are in no sense beholden to Microsoft. But did they never stop to ask why such largesse was forthcoming at that time from such a significant interested party and whether it compromised their activities?

Dogs bark. Cats miaow. Business resists regulation. Without quite realising it, many techie libertarians - even some on the left - have lined up with big businessís traditional hostility to public authority. What is perhaps a little surprising is the way in which other groups, including Journalists, which are normally wary of becoming the instruments of big business, seem to have focused only on the civil liberties aspects of the debate.

The government gave a lot of ground as the RIP Bill went through parliament, significantly adapting it to suit industry demands. Virtually the only organised lobby which spoke in support of what the government was trying to do were the childrenís organisations-the NCH, the NSPCC and the Childrenís Society-who were concerned about the way online paedophiles and child pornographers were abusing encryption technologies to conceal evidence of their crimes. (My own lobbying efforts on behalf of NCH were attacked by the FIPR when it was discovered that my partner of 25 years had been a Labour life peer for the previous two and a half years.) In recognition of its efforts, the FIPR has won an award for ďraising awareness of the threats posed to press freedom by the RIP BillĒ in the European Online Journalism Awards 2000, and it was nominated for another one from Liberty/Justice.

Civil society needs to catch up with the net. Techies and lawyers should not be the only voices in the debate about how the internet is changing Britain and journalists should be more sceptical of those who preach unbridled deregulation. There is a huge public interest at stake. We have to find ways of enabling the institutions of our imperfect democracy to take account of this new technology.

Governments elsewhere are beginning to realise the wider implications of the internetís development, and that leaving it all to industry self regulation is insufficient. They are also beginning to understand that the internet need not be above the law. The French courts recently banned the sale of Nazi memorabilia over the internet in France. The big internet service providers belong to ordinary national jurisdictions, and French experts believe that the ban on Nazi memorabilia will be about 90 per cent effective.

The French government has recently established a new national forum, made up of representatives of the internet industry and French civil society, to discuss the direction the internet is taking. It will advise government on policy and lead public debate, rather as our own Human Genetics Advisory Commission does in another field where technology and society meet. The French body will be financed entirely from French public funds. In the US, a commission recently reported to Congress on proposals to protect children online. Its report envisaged the establishment of a body which would be independently financed and would advise the public and government on the issues raised by the internet.  We need something similar in Britain. The speed of the internetís growth makes this urgent. Techie oligarchs and unaccountable companies are taking decisions today which could be a global reality tomorrow.

John Carr