Big business and techie libertarians dominate debate about the internet. The rest of us need to catch upby John Carr / January 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
Internet activists are becoming better organised and financed. They have an ideology too, a kind of libertarian anti-politics. For many of them, the internet’s ability to bypass scrutiny by public bodies is its greatest virtue. Predictably, the debate early in 2000 about the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Bill, which sought to codify the powers of the police in relation to the internet and data encryption, became a rallying point for this freemasonry of the net.
The Foundation for Information Policy Research (FIPR), one of the main bodies to draw together internet activists, was at the centre of the campaign against the bill. In a major part of its activities, briefing the media, the FIPR succeeded brilliantly, persuading many journalists to parrot its libertarian anti-RIP line.
The FIPR, with an advisory council boasting many of the most prominent internet cheerleaders and the leading lawyers in the field, was ready and waiting when the RIP debate began. So who funded the FIPR in that first year of its existence? Microsoft, 100 per cent. Who sits on the FIPR’s governing council and is one of its trustees? Roger Needham, managing director of Microsoft Research.
In the US, if big business wants certain things to emerge in the public domain which it does not want to say itself, it funds organisations known as surrogates. The FIPR has never denied that it has been funded by Microsoft. And I am sure that the distinguished members of the FIPR’s advisory council are in no sense beholden to Microsoft. But did they never stop to ask why such largesse was forthcoming at that time from such a significant interested party-and whether it compromised their activities?
Dogs bark. Cats miaow. Business resists regulation. Without quite realising it, many techie libertarians-even some on the left-have lined up with big business’s traditional hostility to public authority. What is perhaps a little surprising is the way in which other groups, including journalists, which are normally wary of becoming the instruments of big business, seem to have focused only on the civil liberties aspects of the debate.
The government gave a lot of ground as the RIP Bill went through parliament, significantly adapting it to suit industry demands. Virtually the only organised lobby which spoke in support of what the government was trying to do were the children’s organisations-the NCH, the NSPCC and the Children’s Society-who were concerned about the…