SUNDAY TRIBUNE: 1 DECEMBER 2002
Those whom the gods wish to destroy,
they first make mad - Euripides
IT'S well after midnight on Thursday and after the week that was in it I am most definitely beginning to question my sanity. And George Orwell has a lot to do with it. Eighteen years on from his imagined horror of 1984 in which he brilliantly portrayed how a society would be governed by authoritarianism represented by the character of Big Brother, there's yet another run of the television series bearing that name.
And the central tenet of Orwell's vision of social control hinged on the statement in his book that "big brother is watching you". Now that statement has been turned on its head and aided by the marketing and advertising gurus, Orwell's warning has dissipated into a sign of the times. "You is watching big brother".
And just as I thought I was saved from the Orwellian nightmare by a few so-called celebrities and a few chickens, the great man's name was mentioned in the Dail (Parliament). On foot of a good lead story in Thursday's Irish Times , up pops an opposition party speaker to utter dire warnings about Ireland becoming a Big Brother society.
The Fine Gael TD was responding to a report that new EU legislation due to be enacted next year, would allow telephone and internet records to be kept on file for a period of four years and that this would allow the Department of Justice and the police to spy on citizens' personal records. This ability, of course, was seen as a threat to civil rights and a dire warning of the madness that technology has in store. The Minister for Justice was quick to respond and deny that the Department of Justice would have such a free hand and that citizens should not be concerned when it comes to their civil rights. Safeguards and checks would be put in place.
Not that I was losing any sleep over the Opposition's ominous predictions. I don't subscribe to the Big Bang theory when it comes to civil or privacy rights. Such threats do not come with horns blaring. There may be signs, but they are never neon and flashing.
Civil rights get eroded over a period of time. As I mentioned last week, the monitoring of personal electronic correspondence and internet usage in the workplace has been quietly and effectively introduced without any opposition or real debate on the issue.
In another example of what I mean, public libraries in the south of Ireland have filters in place which, in a lot of cases, use filtering mechanisms - keywords, phrases - which are not open to public scrutiny. The software producers define these lists of words and phrases as trade secrets. I am not advocating the abandonment of protecting children and young people from harmful or dangerous material, but the lack of public debate on what criteria are being used in deciding what words, what phrases and what sites are being censored is perilous.
Firstly because there's the trap of complacency. That technology, in the form of filters, can do the job for us. And secondly, if public funding is being used to buy and operate filtering software, then the public has a right to know what the parameters of that software are and does it really protect children and young people.
If these discussions and revelations are not aired in public, civil rights are usually eroded by default and that erosion becomes the new tide mark. The next dilution comes around and the downward spiral continues unchecked. And there is no going back.
But it was later on in the week that finally tried my sanity, and I became mad. Mad as hell. And I can't take it anymore. For here we are in Ireland, pulling our hair and gnashing our teeth over the lack of broadband access to the internet. We've been at it now for way too long and it looks like we'll have to keep at it for even longer.
We've been so caught up in fighting (and rightly so) for broadband access to the net that we barely have time or energy to concentrate on the second word in that equation. Access.
Save for one determined and anonymous soul who doggedly asked a question and got no answer. Last Wednesday he/she posted a message on a news server run by service provider UTVInternet (UTVi) and wondered why he wasn't able to access www.ebid.ie, an Irish-based auction site. His query was answered shortly afterwards by UTVi: "ebid.ie is currently being blocked by us for all UTVi users because of an ongoing commercial dispute".
Spokespersons for both UTVi and ebid.ie confirmed to me that indeed there was a "commercial dispute". A UTVi spokesperson also said that the company "had no choice" but to block access.
For whatever reasons, the effect of this row between two private companies was that access to ebid.ie's site was only denied to subscribers of the UTVi service because the site was still available through other ISPs. Ebid.ie, which is hosted on a server in the United States, remained fully functional and available for anyone, anywhere in the world to access. Save for the subscribers of UTVi.
What a bizarre way to resolve a private dispute by denying access to a part of the world wide web? And that is what such blocking action is. It raises all manner of civil rights issues for many many people, and all because of a dispute that has nothing to do with the internet or the web. Access became a weapon to be used to resolve a row.
Subscribers to UTVi, or any internet service provider, are paying for access to the internet. Full stop. End of story. Not to go to certain sites only or have it decided by somebody else and on someone else's terms where they can visit or not.
For sure there are agreed guidelines in place to take down or block sites that carry illegal content. The Internet Service Providers Association of Ireland (ISPAI), of which UTVi is a member, has an agreed Code of Practice  in operation. This agreement deals mainly with issues of illegal or harmful content on the net. But such content is not an issue in this dispute. It is a straightforward spat between two companies with the subscribers to UTVInternet as the innocent victims caught in the crossfire.
I believe that UTVInternet's entrance into the market in the south of Ireland is welcome. Its introduction of a flat rate off-peak service is a long overdue facility for a weary and increasingly angry internet community in the south of Ireland. A service that the incumbent telco has failed miserably to provide.
But blocking off access to part of the public internet is WAY too high a price to pay for progress. Disputes between companies should not be sorted by censoring what sites people may visit.
UTVInternet seem to agree but fail to grasp the fundamental issues which at stake here. On Friday a statement from the company said: "Obviously we do not intend to stop our subscribers from having access to sites they wish to visit so this block has now been removed. Given that only a couple of people contacted us about this, we hardly see the temporary block as having had any effect on our wider subscriber base".
Blocking access for commercial reasons to sites on the web will have grave consequences for the internet in Ireland. It is also the beginning of a slippery slide into censorship and worthy of Greek tragedy.
 Story by Karlin Lillington in The Irish Times last week on proposed Department of Justice Bill to retain personal communications data for up to four years LINK
 Summary of the Internet Provider's Association of Ireland's Code of Practice, adopted by members in February 2002. LINK