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Friday, 8 November, 2002, 10:05 GMT
Why the UK needs a net visionary
Bill Thompson, BBC
The UK needs to rethink its priorities for the internet and put greater emphasis on the new opportunities created by the web, argues technology consultant Bill Thompson.
This week saw a major conference in London about the long-term prospects for the internet, filled with the sort of people who have been wondering for a while whether the hype over dot.com businesses had done permanent damage to the net's image as a catalyst for real social and economic change.

Called Beyond the Backlash, the idea was to give the academic researchers, policy makers, new media types and politicians a chance to think big thoughts, express their misgivings, apologise for past excesses and generally contemplate their online navels.

I was there for the day, ostensibly to talk about cyber-crime and the growing need for the hacker community to put aside their contempt for politicians and engage constructively with the debate that is going on about regulating the net.

This seems to me a major priority, because the big corporations who effectively own the US Government are not going to wait around for the net community to decide what laws we would like.

Human network

Stephen Timms MP
Timms: Wants more businesses online
After the US mid-term elections on 5 November gave the Bush Republicans total control of the machinery of government, we can expect to see a lot of corporate-friendly laws that directly affect our online lives, and some response is necessary.

Otherwise those same laws will very quickly move over here too, just as the European Copyright Directive is basically a rewrite of the appalling Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

But the main point of being there was to network, in the human sense, since there was not even a dialup connection in sight at the venue, London's Royal Institute of British Architects.

Not even the inventor of warchalking, Matt Jones, could find a wireless node with which to link up.

However the attention-grabbing talks were saved to the end of the day, when we were treated to two ministerial speeches.

The good life

Stephen Timms MP, the UK's Minister for E-commerce, and Ben Ngubane, the South African Minister for Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, were both asked to talk for 10 minutes on the ways that the internet could help us achieve the 'good life' - how the net could promote human values in a technological age.

Mr Ngubane talked passionately about the need to ensure that the benefits of digital networks were made available to the world's poor, about ways in which wireless networks could transform lives by linking to vital services.


The net is starting to change the way we live, enabling families to stay in touch, children to do better at school and even patients to self-manage their illnesses

He said it was of paramount importance that all the world's people were given access to technology that could improve the quality of their lives.

Stephen Timms expressed concern that not enough small businesses were getting online, and asked us to applaud the government's efforts to benchmark its provision of online services against other countries, all in a spirit of friendly competition.

He talked about the excitement of visiting Silicon Valley four years ago and seeing website links on every billboard, and of the 6,000 public access points that will soon be available.

The contrast was stark. For the citizens of South Africa, a good life is one where they can live without fear of starvation or an early death from disease, full citizens of the digital world.

Stephen Timms seems to think that using e-mail for your small business brings you one step nearer heaven, and the good life is all about delivering government services electronically.

Disappointing

Obviously, as recently appointed point man for the government's obsession with getting all of its services online by 2005, Mr Timms has had to convince himself that this is the most important thing around.

Hand on mouse
The net is creating new opportunities
But it is sadly disappointing that he felt unable to take advantage of the opportunity to think some deeper thoughts and to show that he actually understands what the internet is capable of doing.

The vast amounts of money thrown at the net by greedy, foolish venture capitalists and badly advised small investors during 1999 and 2000 have done us all a massive favour.

They paid for the investment in network infrastructure and software development that has allowed us to have reliable broadband connectivity, multimedia websites, online chat and all the other cool stuff that we are coming to enjoy and rely upon.

The net is starting to change the way we live, enabling families to stay in touch, children to do better at school and even patients to self-manage their illnesses in consultation with their doctors.

Here in the privileged, affluent West the net is creating new opportunities and the minister could at least have shown that he has some idea what they might be, instead of exhorting small companies to get online.

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Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital
Bill Thompson guides you through the world of technology



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25 Jun 02 | Science/Nature
29 Oct 02 | Technology
11 Mar 02 | Business
12 Mar 02 | Business
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