Förderverein Informationstechnik und Gesellschaft
May 19 1999 OPINION
We must all be free to live in cyberspace, says Michael Wills
But the Net is no longer a territory colonised only by those brilliant idealists who created it. Its success - with 80,000 new users coming online every day - is rapidly integrating it into everyday life. More and more, what happens on the Internet erupts into the physical world and affects real people - for good and ill. Millions buy and sell over the Net: the global market for e-commerce is predicted to reach more than a trillion dollars by 2003. People meet over the Net. Criminals use it to evade the law.
The debates taking place in this country and elsewhere in Europe and in international forums such as the OECD are being seen by some as a battleground between the individual and the State. They fear that the Net's success is creating a familiar itch in governments for control.
But if governments simply stood aside, what might happen? Would the Net continue to be a communal village, peopled by benign surfers? More likely we will see the real problems and conflicts of the non-virtual world seeping into cyberspace as use spreads. Reports in America suggest that fraud cases on the Net quintupled last year. The posting of MI6 agents' names on the Internet this week, dangerous to individuals and damaging to British interests, illustrates the problems governments can face.
And there are no easy answers. The technology enables the malevolent and the criminal to move more swiftly than ever before. And governments must always be scrupulous in their respect for liberty and human rights.
The task before us does not end with tackling the dark side of this revolution. Equally importantly, we must ensure that the benefits do not remain confined to the powerful and technologically literate. Without legislation, it would take time and costly court cases to establish a secure legal basis for the electronic signatures that are the building blocks for electronic commerce. In the meantime, the enormous benefits of doing business over the Net would be confined essentialy to the prosperous and powerful. The e-commerce Bill coming before the Commons later this summer will help to secure a framework of trust for doing business electronically as quickly and cheaply and fairly as possible.
Everyone must have a stake in this revolution. That is why the last Budget announced hundreds of millions of pounds of investment to make access to the Internet available to everyone, opening up new opportunities through a national network of learning centres. That is why the Government is launching a campaign to drive home to small businesses the advantages of the Net and the opportunities open to them through support centres nationwide. The fruit of the tree of knowledge ended innocence. But with knowledge came power. And the Internet gives human beings a unique opportunity to gain power over their own lives. But only if it is available to everyone. The e-commerce Bill and our investment in developing skills and providing advice will make a start in doing this.
It may once have appeared that the battle was between freedom and authority. Today it is about government finding ways to ensure that every individual and business can take advantage of the opportunities offered by new technologies and that they do not create new inequalities and undermine social cohesion. The debate over the Internet is not about big, bad government aching to control everything. It is about how government can best provide everyone with opportunities we could not have dreamt of ten years ago. The end of innocence can also be the start of mature freedoms.
The author is a minister at the DTI