University College, London
Back in 2000, when our survival through the Y2K problem was a still a huge relief, the Real Time Club held a debate on governmental control of the internet. I took part in the debate, and proposed the motion that "Control of the internet by governments is imperative for the well-being of society." It turned out to be an emotive debate, and in the event the motion was lost. The participants, who were members of the Real Time Club, were almost entirely entrepreneurs and industry leaders.
Very few real questions have simple yes/no answers. The purpose of a debate is to explore the issues. My initial thinking was that good government provides structures that constrain all of us in ways that help us co-operate. A very simple example of this enforced co-operation is the government-imposed law that we all drive cars on the left of the road in the UK. As a result, there are far fewer road accidents than if there was no such legislation! As is plain from this example, it really does not matter what is legislated - people in France, for instance, are quite happy driving on the right. Most people would agree that this level of governmental control is reasonable and for the common good. At the other end of the spectrum, there are governments in repressive countries whose control of their population is reprehensible. Nevertheless, the motion presented a clear-cut question, and the debate's aim was to achieve a yes/no result.
I was fortunate in having the chance to change the title of the motion very slightly! Originally it was going to have been "Control of the internet by the government is imperative for the well-being of society." But the hot topic at the time was the UK government's Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which calls for rather strong controls over the internet. The RIP Act has been strongly criticised on many grounds, particularly as it removes certain traditional rights and safeguards from citizens. I happen to agree with most of the criticisms of the RIP Act and it certainly didn't help my position that it was a controversial topic on the evening of the debate. That's why I changed the motion to governments, in the plural: the internet is not a British phenomenon, and international governmental control is a real issue.
Imagine everyone sitting around tables, about eight on each. On my table, we were plotting our strategy for the debate while we tried to enjoy the fine food but avoid the fine wine in case it dulled our repartees! So when I came to propose the motion, this is how I started:
In every area of life - from midwifery to car roadworthiness testing - we recognise the need for statutory regulation, often with penal sanctions to dissuade the inevitable criminal elements.
The first point to make about our motion is that the internet is already controlled. Microsoft, AOL and many others control, by their closed programs, what we do. They are not about to tell us the details, as the recent Microsoft/Department of Justice confrontation in the US has made clear.
Governments already control many aspects of internet business, too. They provide legal frameworks, such as contract law, which enable businesses to function. Most businesses would agree this is a "good thing" because it promotes trust and confidence in business partners and client behaviour.
A major benefit of government control, at least in the UK, is that it is visible and accessible - unlike whatever ulterior motives commercial software may not reveal. You can go to Her Majesty's Stationery Office, or of course to the web, and get the complete Health and Safety regulations or indeed the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, if you want to. You can read all the details. If you want to change them, you can get involved in the political processes of the country. We have a franchise and can vote governments in and out. You might counter that as customers we can "vote" companies in and out of power, depending on our purchasing decisions. This is true in general, but it is not true of the internet: we are not the least bit in control of its de facto standards, which largely derive from dominant companies staying in business by developing "upgrade" strategies that effectively force us to keep consuming their products.
The goal of democratic governments, despite the setbacks (even in the UK we've had our share of - mostly historical - setbacks!), is to ensure civilised open society. Governments, indeed, are the open source of legislation.
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. There are robot guns controlled over the internet; our pensions depend on e-investment; and so on. The internet is a serious thing, and has a very serious impact on society.
In civilised societies we have always needed regulation. After much struggle, over centuries, 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, frameworks designed within constitutional and, latterly, clear human rights safeguards.
I argue that the only frameworks that can handle the scale and significance - and temptations - of the world-wide internet are governmental and intergovernmental.
Let's have some examples.
Everyone here will have used computers. You will have been frustrated by the problems. 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 costs 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.
Upgrading creates obsolescence, and obsolescence leads to waste. In the UK we bury nearly a million tonnes of electronics annually. Every computer bought is another one buried, or put in storage - which just delays its entry to landfill. It isn't financially competitive to recycle, yet in the long run we can't sustain this dumping. It has taken a European Directive (WEEE) to wake us up to, in this case, 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.
Here are two more examples of international issues in regulation:
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.
All the controversial examples of government-sanctioned intervention, such as Echelon and the Carnivore internet monitoring program, are examples of lack of proper regulation, and certainly lack of openness. Clearly there is bad regulation; it should be exposed and debated and, as necessary, revised or repealed. I think there is a better chance of repealing bad governmental regulation than hidden quasi-regulation.
Given the mounting social problems we are facing, not least environmental damage and economic exclusion; given the wonderful promises of the internet - for freedom, for improving humanity, for free and trusted markets - these are objectives that will only be achieved within, and by building on, frameworks of democratic, representative, governmental control of the internet.
Many issues (whose analysis would support the motion) have not been covered in my discussion, such as cryptography (especially public key infrastructure) and even biological implants. British Telecom futurists predict we may have brain connections by 2005 (back in 1994 they predicted them for 2025: technology must be speeding up more than they first thought). How will developments like this be regulated?
We want to live in a country that allows us to have frank and open discussions like the one we can have during this debate. Whether or not you agree with my arguments, your participation in the debate is a slice of democracy in action.
Arguments like this debate's could well have been carried out in that country called the internet. In other words, we would like internet architectures to guarantee the basic conventions and freedoms of democracy we routinely (at least in the UK) experience in real physical spaces. Governments, despite their well-known problems, are the only process we know to establish the rule of law. But as we know from Afghanistan, Burma, Sudan and too many other places, such freedoms are precarious and often undermined, both on and off the net. We in Europe rely on elections, human rights and other well-known principles, in turn constraining and enabling our governments to ensure our well-being. Representative government achieves society's civilised goals. There are good reasons to apply government controls to the internet. I think there are even stronger reasons to set a good example to other regimes around the world: that sane regulation is possible. Oppressed citizens of these countries, in part thanks to the internet, will be able to see alternatives and more liberal ways to regulate behaviour in civilised societies.
There is one superficially persuasive reason to disagree with government regulation, namely that "I do not need regulation." We all feel we are benign, and therefore best left alone by government. Everyone here in this debate is successful, and probably feels they'd be more successful without any regulation hampering them. Yet we are not the only people out there! On the internet there are millions of other people, by no means all of whom are as benign as we are - or as benign as we like to think we are.
If anyone opposes government regulation, yet somehow submits to the real-world controls such as those that, for instance, preserve us from food poisoning, they're not being consistent. If they have integrity, they must agree with the motion.
For the rest of us, however successful we are or are not in our internet business ventures, we would like to have an assured framework of confidence on the internet. We want to progress democratically to overcome the problems and make the world a better place. Our goals are not going to be easily achieved, perhaps, but government control is a small price to pay for the assurance of the well-being of society.
The arguments against the motion included three key points. First, regulation should not regulate communication. Freedom to communicate is essential in a democracy. Yet unfortunately, governments are only too well aware of the opportunities for eavesdropping, recording email, and so on. Secondly, it seems very clear that governments do not understand the internet nor its huge potential. Mistaken regulation now could be counterproductive. Another argument was about freedom: "Freedom lets you thrive." My counter would be that it certainly lets some people thrive, but concentrating on the thriving of successful businesses (which were well-represented in the room during the debate) rather glosses over the huge numbers of people failing to thrive, as well as the mavericks who, without regulation, would thrive at everyone else's expense.
At the end of the debate, of the 95 people present, 14 voted for the motion and 45 against, and 36 abstained. How would you have voted?
My view is that we should regulate lightly, and we should do so in an open (and ongoing) debate, in the UK, in Europe and beyond. Historically, even international forums are heavily biased towards those who are able to attend - who are typically the successful business representatives - so it's exciting that the internet can be used to overcome this sort of bias and include wider representation. The net has demonstrated this repeatedly in exposing to public debate the motives and consequences behind proposed international treaties, such as the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (the MAI). The current US Uniform Computer Information Transactions Act (UCITA) debate is a case in point. I for one would not have known the plans and the strong views about UCITA but for the internet.
The British trade paper, Computer Weekly, reported this debate in its 21 September 2000 issue (pages 38-39) in an article entitled "Should Big Brother Control the Net?" written by John Riley, who was present at the debate. For further background reading, I recommend Lawrence Lessig's Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, Basic Books (1999) and Wendy Grossman's From Anarchy to Power: The Net Comes of Age, New York University Press (2001).
 A referee of this article pointed out that when I said "civilised" this might be construed as meaning "Western." In fact I mean civilised in the broadest sense; there are many civilised societies that are not Western, and indeed there are civilised societies which are not democratic. As a quite separate point, but also related to the dangers of assumed nationalistic perspectives, my internet thinking tends to split the world into "us" and "them," with wherever I am, typically Britain, as "us" and the US as "them" (even though it spells "us").
 There are numerous schemes for rebuilding and recycling old computers, often with the aim of distributing them to the Third World. Whilst these activities are basically noble, they do not deal with the issues of pollution: the recycled computers still contain heavy metals, flame retardants, hexavalent chromium and so on. We should be very cautious not to use "recycling" as an excuse to avoid tackling our low manufacturing standards. The Third World is a big landfill site, but has weak control over safe final disposal.
 An intriguing perspective on internet taxation and rent is based on the nineteenth-century economist Henry George's view, which essentially stated that property owners resist taxation on land (compare the ad hoc and opaque status of Britain's Land Registry with the regular and thorough people census); if cyberspace is "land" then, by Georgist arguments, there will be similar issues.
 See "UCITA Online" at http://www.ucitaonline.com/ or the ACM open letter at http://www.acm.org/usacm/IP/ucita.states.htm (the ACM is a professional computer society). Better still, do your own web search on UCITA and get a view of the wide range of opinions.