The profit motive moves in on the Internet. Could the British Government be doing more for democracy by using the Net? Ben Schneider reports.
Squall 10, Summer 1995, pg. 39.
Exponential. That is the word which comes into mind when thinking about the growth of the Internet.
A couple of years ago, the Net was a mysterious entity, available to very few in the UK - only used by academia and computer companies. Video recorders were first commercially available less than twenty years ago, and their ubiquitous presence now illustrates the hunger for media/technological development in consumer society.
Fortunately, the Internet Itinerant can quickly find conferences, web-sites (see box) and contacts which may correspond to his or her interests. However, what is worrying is the growing threat of commercialisation on the Net and UK Government policy regarding the provision of useful official information.
Conventional media is basically run to create profits by way of advertising. The Internet more or less frowns upon this, resulting in fear amongst media giants such as Time-Warner that the Net, as the fastest growing medium in the world, does not pay homage to the advertising God. A good example comes from Canter & Siegel, German lawyers, who made a “scattergun” advertisement for their services in aiding visa applications for US green cards. The Wall Street Journal Europe (27.4.94) stated that 35,000 responses came within days: “Some were polite requests for information but many were hate mail... One angry soul made the point by sending 8 million characters of gibberish, a ‘mail-bomb’.” Such was the response that it crashed the lawyer’s internet provider computer!
Mass media concern, although not unfounded, should be tempered with a worrying yet predictable development. As documented in the Guardian (27.4.95), American (and to an extent, British) Net culture is going in two directions simultaneously: “On the one hand, there are the untamed wilds of the Internet, expanding rapidly without a centralised authority... On the other, there is the emergence of massive information providers like... CompuServe... On one side of the divide, the many-to-many model reigns triumphant; on the other, old-style mass media seems alive and well in the information age.”
Access to the Net does involve a little computer knowledge, but this is unlikely to pose a problem for the literate. However, the more commercial providers such as CompuServe know that the punters find comfort in familiar TV-style information provision, where the consumer is spoon-fed and not required to show initiative to find what he or she needs!
Government is concerned. Tax possibilities from this media boom are most attractive but more importantly there is apprehension over how information that is disseminated via the Net bypasses formal channels and censorship. The Net also threatens the intellectual property rights and economic rights of “Government Information”.
To give an example, look at Her Majesty’s Stationary Office (HMSO). They publish the proceedings of the House of Commons and Lords - Hansard. This is the digest or newspaper (for what it’s worth) of our country’s Parliament. It costs an outrageous £7.50 a day for the Commons and £4.20 for the Lords. The argument of intellectual property is no better illustrated than here.
Despite calls for the digest of our Parliament to be made available on the Net - from MP David Shaw (13.1.95, alt.british.politics Newsgroup) and others, including a letter to the Times (21.10.94), HMSO has stitched up the market. Annual subscription to the Commons Hansard is £1,275. I could buy a copy of Loot, find a cheap second-hand computer, a modem and a year’s subscription to GreenNet for half the price!!
With several thousand subscriptions (the actual number is “confidential information”), HMSO is unlikely to release the copyright on this publication.
There has been a trend since the 1980s to charge increasing amounts for what could be described as Public Information. In 1984, during the Thatcher administration, a document called “Making a Business of Information” stressed the economic value of official information and encouraged HMSO to charge more for legislative and public documents. Additionally, an Information Technology Advisory Panel report of the same year stressed the importance of “...(financially underpinning) its information gathering and supply activities by a means of stimulating the creation and growth of new IT based services.” Very Thatcher. Print the shit you have to print, charge as much as possible for it in paper format and sell it again to commercial providers who can make lots of money by adding value and putting it on-line or on a CD-ROM. Free Market Heaven.
The Internet is a challenge to this policy which has been gathering steam for ten years. This Government, which has endured criticism over official secrecy and slow uptake of the Net, has bowed to pressure and created the so-called Open Government server (its World Wide Web address is http://www.open.gov.uk). Does it have press releases? Yes. Does it have general information on how “open” the UK Government is? Yes. Does it have proposed Bills? No. Does it have any information which it could sell? What do you think?! It will not provide information that threatens revenue of money-making products.
The USA, in contrast, has excellent Government Net resources. Tim Jackson (FT 18.4.95) states: “There is already a lively debate in the US on ways in which technology can make democracy work better by improving the flow of information. The culture of secrecy in British governance - and the vested interests that hinder its reform - will mean that progress is slow.... The free electronic flow of information will promote better government... Meantime, users of the Web [and the Net] will have to be patient.”
The Net is a positive way of disseminating information which is not already in the public domain. I believe we have a right to see this information either for free, or at a charge which reflects actual costs, not profits. Here is an opportunity to increase the public’s access to vital information in a country without comprehensive Freedom of Information legislation. Don’t let it slip away.
The World Wide Web
• The World Wide Web began life in Switzerland at CERN.
• There is a special computer language which allows a combination of text, graphics, video and sound to be sent on the Net called Hyper Text Mark-Up Language (HTML). The computer must have a web “browser” or piece of software which can read web information, such as Netscape or Mosaic.
• The Web allows a user to view a screen and by pointing and clicking a mouse on highlighted images or text the screen will jump to the screen which the highlighted image/text refers to.
• Using the example of the Open Government Web Site (see figure below), there’s a lovely piccy of Big Ben and underlined options, such as what’s new etc. Using the mouse and double-clicking on the What’s New option brings up a new screen with information under that subject).
• There is a smaller picture of Big Ben on the What’s New screen. Clicking on that will bring you back to the first screen.
• What is so exciting about this application is that a user can literally jump anywhere, from the Open Government web site to Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery page to Southampton Football Club and so on and so on.
• 80% of Internet “traffic” is Web traffic.
• For July SQUALL will have a web page at the following address. It will probably change soon after that, but I will put the new address on the page so everyone will be in the know! http://www.city.ac.uk/~cl531/ben.html
Related Articles In This Issue
Group 4 On The Net - Group 4 uses web to surveil road protesters
West Mercia Police And The Anonymous Remailer - police use dubious and potentially hack-able anonymising service