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Friday, 31 May, 2002, 09:19 GMT 10:19 UK
Why the technical is political
Computer consultant Bill Thompson
Computer consultant Bill Thompson explains how politics is changing the world of technology, in the second of his weekly columns.

A significant advantage in the early days of the internet was that the network engineers and hardcore programmers could get on with defining the standards and building the network. Politicians had no part to play.

But this has changed, and now we really need them to get involved. The net is no longer just an experimental or academic playground: it is part of the critical infrastructure of modern civil society.

The difference has been apparent for two or three years in the debate over how we regulate and control the content of websites.

Yahoo France's removal of Nazi memorabilia from its auction site after complaints, and the many cases of online child pornography, all involved the crossover between technical and political choices.

Political web

Now, however, politics is starting to dominate all areas of the network's development, from criminal law to authentication frameworks to domain name dispute resolution.

computer keyboard and monitor
Laws to control e-crime
First, there was the Council of Europe's treaty on cybercrime, providing a codification of the sorts of criminal activity that could be committed online, and prompting many national governments to begin the process of enacting laws that will attempt to control e-crime.

Then we had the European Union's copyright directive, which will force EU countries to draft their own versions of the United States Digital Millennium Copyright Act, making it a criminal offence to break the copyright protection which CD and DVD manufacturers put on their products.

It could make criminals of blind people who want to have computer-based e-books read to them and use programs to do so, refusing to accept the limitations that e-book vendors attempt to impose on them.

On a more practical level, in early May the English local council elections provided another insight into the politics of the e-world as some authorities let people vote using the web, text messaging or telephone.

This week the House of Lords in the UK is debating the outcome of this experiment and it will, no doubt, be used to push forward plans for online and SMS voting at the next general election. I think this would be a disaster.

Domain debate

Outside Britain we find Icann, the organisation that looks after the global domain name system that gives us names like and instead of numbers like, in crisis and defending itself from accusations that it has been acting illegally in doing deals behind closed doors.

Since Icann is based in California, these obviously do not take place in smoke-filled rooms, but it's that sort of thing.

At the same time, Icann has asked organisations to bid to take over the running of the .org domain.

Escape key on a keyboard
No escape from political battles
This domain is used by many non-commercial and non-profit organisations, and a debate is now taking place over whether there should be a space online for people who want something different from the resolutely commercial network that has grown up in the past decade.

Lastly, we have the continuing arguments over whether ordinary citizens should be allowed to use strong encryption to keep their emails and other communications secret from their governments.

And whether we should all be forced to identify ourselves online using digital certificates, so that we can be tracked and pursued on the net as well as in the real world.

Organisations like the independent Foundation for Information Policy Research (FIPR) try to draw attention to these issues but the barriers to understanding are very high precisely because they are grounded in technology.

Understanding technology

All of these topics are complex and hard to explain. They involve decisions about technical matters which few people really understand - things like the way information is stored in digital certificates, or the structure of the database that drives the domain name system.

Smart chips are used on credit cards
Will we all be chipped in the future?
The technical details cannot easily be simplified, but the implications for our emerging digital society are profound. The technical choices will fundamentally determine the ways we live in the network society.

This means that we cannot simply ignore the technology. We must work to understand it, demand that it is explained to us and make sure our political leaders appreciate how the technical and the political overlap and determine each other.

The feminist slogan 'the personal is political' reflects a deep truth. The power structures in our society can be understood in terms of individual lives and relationships, and real change will come when this principle is accepted at all levels.

Perhaps we need a new slogan for the internet age. We need to recognise that 'the technical is political' and act accordingly.

The Bill Thompson column is courtesy of BBC WebWise, part of BBC Education's ongoing campaign to teach people about the internet and how to use it. Bill is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme, Go Digital
Bill Thompson guides you through the world of technology

See also:

30 May 02 | Science/Nature
11 Jul 01 | Science/Nature
18 Jan 02 | Science/Nature
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