Monday, 25 June 2007

Net Benefit

Yesterday, the Sunday Telegraph ran a story under the headline Internet spreads terror to Britain, which did a fair job of spreading a different kind of terror all of its own.

I have no doubt that dozens of rabidly anti-western Muslim terrorists are, indeed, using the net to plan and implement their malignant schemes, as the Telegraph suggests. It would be foolish of them not to use technology in this way, and even more foolish of those whose job it is to catch them to ignore the trend.

So far, so humdrum, and I take no issue with the story being reported, even though it shouldn't come as any great surprise to anyone. I am, however, rather concerned by the way the Internet is depicted in the article. The first paragraph reads, "It is 11pm on Tuesday and Omar Bakri Mohammed's loyal band of followers hunch over computers and laptops at secret locations across Britain to listen to his defiant message to the west."

It goes on to mention a "secretive internet chat room", and adds "Bakri and his followers had their discussion on a webcast. The webcasts can run several times a week, and up to 70 people a night log in, each with an individual password."

A little later, after proudly mentioning a week-long (only a week - they didn't have to look very hard, did they?) "investigation" into the spread of Islamic militancy on the Internet, the article says, "We discovered extremists posting messages and images on a recently established, password-protected pro-Islamist site. It is on sites like this that Bakri's broadcasts are referred to openly, with advice on what time they begin and even requests not to "arrive" in the chatroom late. There are also dozens of photographs celebrating, among others, Osama bin Laden, and a tasteless message expressing "amusement" at photographs of American soldiers killed by terrorists."

And so it continues. What's wrong with that, I hear you cry. Well, in itself, noting very much - I'm sure the article is factually spot on. But, as I have found from my day job, the vast majority of people know approximately nothing about the Internet. Oh sure, many (though by no means all) of them can read a web site and send an email, but that's about the extent of their ability.

They are vaguely aware of things like MSN Messenger, but have no clue about IRC, Usenet and the raft of other services available online. Worse, thanks to articles like that in the Telegraph, they dimly perceive their own ignorance, and they are uneasy.

In the past few days, I've noticed a small flurry of articles along similar lines. Last week it was the repulsive case of Timothy Cox, who ran a global child abuse network through a UK based website. What parent - or, indeed, any reasonable person - could avoid being sickened by his actions, or pleased by headlines like, "Paedophile ring smashed by police," and quite rightly, too! But the story, and its references to the Internet, cannot have done anything to dispel the negative impressions that are gathering around the most effective communication medium ever invented.

Today, it's a story about how up to 80 schoolchildren, some as young as 11, used the Internet to plan a fight, intending to turn up wielding chains, iron bars and various other implements. Again, this in itself is nothing new - kids from rival schools / groups have always done this sort of damn stupid thing. It's the use of the Internet that makes the story newsworthy, and adds a further tweak to the clockwork of unease for those who are easily led by media innuendo.

Such smouldering unease, fanned by articles portraying the net as some shadowy, ethereal underworld filled with terrorists and every other kind of unsavoury character, can quickly erupt into the blazing inferno of fear - fear of the worst kind, fear of the unknown.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out what happens when people are afraid. They demand, often quite vociferously, using a loudhailer and placards, that "something MUST be done!". And guess what? Something WILL be done. Politicians don't like the Internet, for obvious reasons; it's far too easy for Joe Public to set up a website or blog and say exactly what he (or, in this politically correct era, She) thinks.

Of course, only a few days ago, in his scathing attack on the media, Tony Blair dismissed the Internet as being filled with conspiracy theorists, and, to some degree, he might have a point. But it is also alive with ordinary, everyday people who are sick to the teeth with being ignored, fobbed off and dismissed when they try to raise concerns.

Take Holt School, in Wokingham, Berkshire, for example. Fed up with waiting for the local council to do something about the dilapidated, rotting buildings in which its pupils are expected to study, the school has made pictures of its disintegrating infrastructure freely available on the Internet. Conspiracy theorists? I think not.

Naturally, faced with this unprecedented upsurge in people using (rather than just having) their right to free speech, a politician's response is entirely predictable; it must be regulated, controlled and, ultimately, prevented. But how to do it? How do you go about putting paid to something that people in their droves are already using to shine an unwelcome spotlight on your schemes?

Perhaps by creating an environment in which people actively want, and even demand, regulation? By subtly suggesting, perhaps, that some things are afoot that folks should be afraid of? Like terrorism? Or child abuse? Massage enough stories like that into the media, drip-fed into the minds of genuinely concerned people who think that they don't have enough knowledge of their own to protect themselves and their children, and you will create a clamour for regulation.

The more easily led members of society will form pressure groups, they will campaign, they will set up websites, they will agitate and harass and demand until the government bows down to "public opinion" and takes away their right to do so.

Paranoia, you think? Guess again. Coming full circle, yesterday's Sunday Telegraph also ran an article under the headline "Censors want 18 ratings on internet." Again, in theory, I have no problem with keeping kids away from porn. As a practical matter, it's going to be a bit more difficult that slapping an 18 rating on a website, though. Besides, what about websites from overseas that don't have to follow our legislation? And what else, other than porn, might be considered for such regulation, either now or in the future?

As anyone with any clue about how the Internet works will know, this crackpot scheme hasn't a hope in hell of doing what it's intended to do, nor could it ever have such a hope. It is, however, another step along the slippery slope to Internet regulation. The terminally inept Mr Blair may be packing his bags and leaving Downing St., but his successor, eager to move in from next door, is far from inept, allegedly ruthless and doesn't take at all kindly to criticism. How long will it be before he tries to prevent blogs like this one from pointing out his flaws? I give it 18 months at most.

Billy Seggars.

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