When IT Meets Politics

Oct 13 2009   7:58PM GMT

The power and the frailty of Internet Free Speach

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo

Tags:
Churchill
Google
Hitler
Minton
Roosevelt
Stalin
Trafigura
Yahoo

Whether it was Guido Fawkes or the Twitterers, this morning saw a demonstration of the power of the blogocracy in overcoming the attempt to stop the Guardian from publishing questions tabled in parliament. Not only was the list of full questions posted in comments on Guido’s blog but so were links to the full texts of the Minton report on Trafigura and of the Barclays Tax Avoidance schemes and a mass of scuttlebutt on other Carter Ruck clients.    

But what if a similar case had happened in the United States? The US-based ISPs and Search engines would have obeyed the injunctions, just as W H Smith obeyed those of Robert Maxwell when he could not silence Private Eye and went for the distributor instead.

Meanwhile in Iran and China the technologies used to target Internet Advertising are turned through 180 degrees and used to identify dissident bloggers and twitterers. What really stops that happening here – beginning with those who swop unlicensed music tracks? Is our main “protection” that the most popular English language servers are not based in the UK.

Had Google and Yahoo not moved their European headquarters out of the UK (and EU) earlier this year, the story might well have been very different. The writs would have been served and Guido’s co-conspirators would not have been able to link to the documents.

How ironic that the legal pressures that are driving the heart of the Internet offshore are also helping preserve its value as a carrier of free speach. But, given the creeping “censorship” within the US as illustrated in the example I quoted in my blog yesterday , can we trust American lawyers to preserve that freedom? Would it not be better to restart the process of “making the UK the best place to do business on-line”.  .

Tomorrow the EURIM Knowledge Economy Group will review the update of its 2006 paper “A Flourishing Innovation Economy”  The working title of the new paper is “Knitting with teaspoons”. The basic theme is that technological change has outstripped policy evolution to such an extent that many of the policies we have in place to support business have become the wrong tools for the job.

One of Guido’s co-conspirators claimed “The power of the Internet cannot be contained within the paltry constraints of a judge’s chambers” . But it can be taken out completely, at least temporarily, by an Islamic government which objects to its use to carry criticism. It can readily be hi-jacked, again perhaps only temporarily, to bombard citizens with propaganda, (alias spam), or hijack their identities, (and votes). We face the rule of the nerds. 

On the 22nd October I am due to participate in one of the panel session of the on-line conference Goverment 2010   . Part of me is tempted not to throw my rocks too hard – lest I damage the delicate flower of Internet Democracy. However, the triumphalism of those who over-rate the victory won this morning will enable me to overcome than temptation.

Just as the ham radio free thinkers were crushed by the state radio reinforced state bureaucracies of Hitler, Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill, all master of the new media, so the libertarians of the Internet age could yet be crushed by the masters of this new media.

We forget that in economic terms the Internet is a cartel masquerading as anarchy. We are critically dependent on the business models of that cartel being more aligned with free speach than with mind control, whether by their advertisers or the state.

  

    

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  • Matt Wardman
    I'll be at Government 2010.

    On this issue English Law is a joke and a disgrace, so please throw your rocks with a machine gun (or preferably a Howitzer) - but in the right direction, combined with a message that blogs, social media etc etc are a tool which is allowing those politicians who engage with the electorate to build real democratic conversations.

    One other big issue is building a culture of openness in the public sector for employees, rather than one of fear and punishment.

    btw A wonderful quote from a Newsnight discussion on Tuesday:

    "We are at the moment entertaining in our Courts a Ukranian Oligarch who has come here to sue a Ukranian language website based in the

    Ukraine which just happens to be accessible to the one or two people in this country who can read Ukranian."

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00ndt7t/Newsnight_13_10_2009/

    (43 mins in)

    The one thing Carter-Ruck got right this time was to back down quickly enough to avoid being nailed at the top of Google for the next year

    with critical articles. As for the rest, they were - so to speak - "Carter-Rucked" on National TV.

    I believe that China has quoted UK internet restrictions as an excuse for the Great Firewall, but I need to dig out the context.

    Rgds

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