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Last Updated: Friday, 17 June 2005, 14:20 GMT 15:20 UK
Live 8: Not in my name
eBay gave in easily when Bob Geldof complained about online Live 8 ticket re-selling. But technology commentator Bill Thompson was not surprised.

Image of eBay ticket sales
eBay reacted quickly to Geldof's request
I was undecided about Live 8 until earlier this week.

That is when Bob Geldof turned up on every radio and TV station that would have him to condemn eBay for allowing ticket-holders to sell their tickets to his consciousness-raising concert.

At that point, all of the concerns I had about the effectiveness of a large-scale rock concert as a way of raising awareness of serious political issues crystallised: the lack of African involvement, Live 8's impact on the rest of the Make Poverty History coalition, and the sanctimonious preaching.

Geldof threatened eBay with disruption and loss of reputation, calling on users to undermine its business and break the terms of their membership.

It was an objectionable act, in my view, and may have serious consequences for the long-term shape of the online world.

After all, if Geldof can get items removed from auction, who else is going to use this as a tactic in the future?

Popular myth

I do not blame eBay for caving in. You cannot look to the private sector to defend your freedom of speech, and the contract every eBay user signs up to when they start to use the service means that the company has final discretion over what can and cannot be sold.

Whether it is legal to sell the tickets is not the point. Geldof whipped up a mob to protest about something he personally did not like, and eBay decided that it was not worth the damage to its reputation to go against him.

Bill Thompson
We have to look elsewhere for our freedoms, because neither the network nor the private companies that provide so much of the infrastructure and so many of the services will secure them

Bob wins, and it is no good complaining.

But the company's action does demonstrate clearly that, despite the still-popular myth, the internet is far from being a haven for free speech, freedom of expression or even free trade.

We know that repressive regimes in countries such as China and Saudi Arabia censor net content, but the same thing happens everywhere.

We see it when internet service providers take down websites on the basis of an unfounded allegation of copyright infringement, often without checking with the site owner.

We see it when BT uses its Cleanfeed service to restrict access to a list of websites provided for it by non-accountable "net policemen" at the Internet Watch Foundation because of claims that they host images of child abuse.

We see it when Microsoft does a deal with the Chinese government to stop anyone there using the word "democracy" in the title of their MSN-hosted weblog.

And have you ever tried to buy a song from Apple's French music store on a UK credit card so you can pay 0.99 euro - 68p - instead of 79p?

But the private sector is interested in doing business.

Not eBay's problem

We should not blame them for this - if I was a senior manager at Microsoft, I would do the same in China.

After all, promoting freedom of speech does not do much to enhance shareholder value if it puts you in conflict with a host government or gets certain figures trashing you on the airwaves.

In the end this is not eBay's problem.

While their actions saddened me, I can understand and even sympathise with their position, and their decision to suspend the accounts of those foolish people who thought that it was clever to put in fake bids for millions of pounds shows that they have not quite gone over to the dark side.

But what it clearly shows is that we have to look elsewhere for our freedoms, because neither the network nor the private companies that provide so much of the infrastructure and so many of the services will secure them.

A few years ago the internet was free because the tools available to monitor, control, manage and track users were not up to the task.

Cleanfeed would have been impossible 10 years ago. As these back doors, grey areas and subtle failings of the mechanisms of control have been removed and repaired, so we find ourselves at the mercy of the corporations.

And since governments are much fonder of passing laws which say what you shall not do - sell tickets to football matches, poke too much fun at religion, remain anonymous - than those which offer positive guarantees of what you shall be permitted to do, we are in big trouble.

There is no law that says that eBay will provide a market for any legal transaction, but if there had been then the company could have pointed to it when Geldof hit the airwaves and said "don't blame us - we're just obeying the law".

If we want freedom online then we need laws that guarantee it. We cannot trust the technology, because it is getting better and better at control and surveillance, as China makes clear.

We cannot trust the private sector, not because they are devious or anti-freedom, but simply because it is not and never has been their role to preserve our core liberties.

In the end, we have to appeal to the rule of law, to the hard-won Human Rights Act, to laws which ban restraint of trade or require equality of access to all.

It may not be popular in the US, where the belief that government can do nothing right is still widespread, but it is the only way we are going to keep free speech and free trade online.

And meanwhile, I will spend 2 July doing something that minimises my exposure to Live 8 and all that it stands for - the popstar mentality that believes that a bunch of ageing musicians and a bunch of wannabe millionaires prancing around a few stages can do anything to raise awareness or affect political will.

Maybe I will go and spend the day helping out at my local Oxfam store, selling fair trade products and doing the small scale work on the ground that can really make a difference in the long run, rather than the grandiose gesture that changes nothing but makes some famous people feel good about their wealth.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.


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