SUNDAY TRIBUNE: 16 OCTOBER 2005


Border lines



GOVERNMENTS take to technology like a hydrophobic duck to water. Any technology, especially a new one, has economic and social consequences, some of which only emerge later, by which time it might be too late to rewind. Governments prefer to control.

Broadcasting is a good example. At a cursory glance, the steady hand of state control appears to have lifted. The plethora of radio and television stations on air today is another world compared to a decade ago.

In reality the licensing regime, content regulation - such as news quotas - and ownership rules is the state, at one remove, continuing to exert major influence and control.

It's the same with the recent revelations here about the health service payroll computing system. Politicians don't have a clue about computer networks and software. Why would they?

But relying on consultants to advise them means politicians run the risk of losing their grip. Handing control over to companies who answer to a private board or the stock market, rather than the electorate. If something goes wrong, the politicians end up having to justify the unjustifiable. Not a good situation to end up and they don't like it one bit.

Historically, major technologies like electricity, water and sewage (delivering both is a technological feat) were under state control. An element of this was economic as private companies showed little interest.

But state ownership also meant that the consequences of making those technologies available could be controlled and managed, thereby reducing any potential political fall-out.

Former US president JF Kennedy summed up this attitude in 1962. It's as relevant today as it was then: "...Space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own".

A recent leader editorial in the Guardian newspaper glowed on the "transforming effects of the information revolution". There was mention of the "digital revolution sweeping all before it". The internet was referred to as "the most enabling revolution that has ever happened". The word 'revolution' appeared six times in total.

These words scare the living daylights out of governments and politicians. Is there a revolution underway and if so, who is behind it? Where is it heading? They do know one thing for certain. The internet has something to do with it.

"Youth has been shaped by the internet and the iPod, by cheap flights and mobile phones", said Tory leader Michael Howard in his speech at the party's recent conference.

At the same time as the party faithful revelled in Howard's so-with-it, 'revolutionary' buzzwords, all hell was breaking loose in Tunisia, where government and NGO representatives from nearly every country were preparing proposals on how the net should be managed.

Her majesty's government, on behalf of the European Union, surprisingly broke ranks with the United States on the nightmarish quagmire of internet governance. The sundering of the transatlantic 'old friends' US/British alliance, so strong and resolute up to now, is something that genuinely qualifies as revolutionary.

When Bill Clinton ordered the internet's domain name system (DNS) -the net's heartbeat - to be privatised in 1997, he did so as part of that administration's 'Framework for Global Electronic Commerce'.

Since than, a quasi-independent US-based organisation called Icann has run the DNS. The plan was to transition it to independent, private sector management by 2006. Last July, the US government changed all that and said it would maintain "its historic role in authorising changes or modifications" to the DNS. Translated, it means nobody gets to fiddle with the net without US say-so.

This is what got the delegates in Tunis all riled up about, with many countries demanding that the DNS be put under the control of the United Nations as soon as possible.

As an historical right, governments have control over what happens inside their national borders. The inability to control what originates from outside requires a very different attitude and response.

If that happens, the revolution will definitely have started.