The internet is a precious achievement. But as its reach extends into more of our lives, so does the fear that it is undermining national standards in everything from crime prevention to taxation. If politicians around the world cannot agree on some basic rules, a backlash will force them to act.by John Carr / June 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
As recently as the early 1990s, the internet connected no more than 200,000 people (mainly academics) around the world. Today it reaches over 163m people and is set to double its reach within 18 months. Even the most die-hard sceptic must now accept that the internet is a very big deal indeed: Goldman Sachs predicts that by 2007, more than 70 per cent of all households in the richer OECD countries will have internet access; the number of people in Britain who are on-line at home or in the office is now estimated at 7m, with 10,000 joining every day.
But the internet does not merely generate impressive statistics. It has become a commonplace that it will change our lives in several important respects. Education and our information storage and display systems, from publishing to libraries, are in the front guard. Business (especially retailing and financial services) is catching up. E-commerce revenue around the world is estimated to rise to $623 billion in 2002, from about $41 billion in 1998.
The internet is both a cause and an effect of globalisation. It is a quintessentially modern phenomenon, which throws up large questions about the feasibility of specifically national customs and laws-from censorship and privacy to taxation. So far these have been mainly addressed by the internet’s own American-dominated, laissez-faire, “techie” culture, and by the few people in business and government who understand the issues. Most of the baby boomers who now run the western world are comfortable enough using the internet, but hitherto they have left what happens behind the screen to the experts. This is the new “two cultures” divide: between those who understand some of the technical and political issues involved, and those who are content just to enjoy the new services provided.
My own experience with an earlier generation of technology illuminates some of the problems with this divide. I first became interested in computers in 1981, the year I was elected to the Greater London Council, of blessed memory. To my surprise, I found myself running the committee overseeing computer services. Before I had taken up my new position, I was called at home by a union official who organised within ICL, then a threatened remnant of Britain’s computer industry (now a successful subsidiary of Fujitsu). My caller told me that a huge contract was about to be let by the GLC for a new…