2.3 The internet … too important to be left to engineers

Why do these possible changes to the internet matter? As the internet becomes more central to our lives, alterations in its nature or functioning could have consequences for us all. Implicit in the technology, for example, is the capacity to monitor the online activity of every single user: to track every website visited, every email sent (and to whom), and so on. So debates about the future of the Net, and about the legal framework within which it operates, are increasingly going to be debates about the future of society – just as, say, arguments about press freedom are inevitably arguments about liberty and democracy.

To illustrate this point let's take two cases. Both involve the right to privacy, which is defined in the European Convention on Human Rights as a fundamental human right. Despite this, there are strong pressures to erode privacy coming from both commerce and governments.

  • On the commercial side, you may have noticed that many e-commerce sites encourage you to sign up for e-mail updates, notification of special offers and so on. In order to do this you are asked to complete an online form giving some or all of the following details: name, age, gender, occupation, mail address, email address, postcode. The reputable sites have a link to a statement of the proprietor's privacy policy. Disreputable sites do not even have that. And the ‘policy’ may range from a solemn undertaking never to reveal your details to anyone outside the operator's organisation to an opaque statement which is difficult to understand but which in essence reserves the right to make your details available to other companies without consulting you. You may not be too concerned about this because you live in a country with strong ‘data protection’ legislation. But the site to which you have confided your data may be located in a country with much less stringent legal protection of privacy. The point is that, over time, your privacy may be eroded in ways and to an extent that you never envisaged.

  • On the government side, the privacy of your personal communications may be compromised by new laws governing the interception and monitoring of email. For example, the UK Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act of 2000 (RIPA) gives the Home Secretary and a range of other public authorities sweeping powers to intercept and read email, and to monitor the ‘clickstream’ – i.e. the record of websites visited – of any internet user. At the time of the passage of the Act, the government maintained that its purpose was simply to bring powers for online surveillance into line with existing powers to monitor telephone conversations or intercept written communications. Critics of the Act maintain that the new powers are more intrusive and exercised with less judicial oversight. And that, for example, an individual's clickstream (which can be accessed under RIPA with a warrant) can be much more revealing than a list of telephone numbers dialled by him or her.

What these examples show is that there is a strong connection between developments on and surrounding the internet that affect something (privacy) which is normally regarded as a subject for political concern and debate. Yet what we generally find is that debates about internet regulation tend to be regarded as technical arguments about a technological subject, rather than as matters that should concern every citizen. The viewpoint implicit in this unit – and one of the reasons we created it – is that this is misguided. The internet has become too important to be left to the engineers.

2.2.5 What would be the implications of changes in the nature of the Net?

2.4 The Future of Ideas