Jane Wakefield: Is it 1984, or just Lord of the Flies?

The e-Minister Patricia Hewitt was at it again this week, full of earnest intentions about government plans for e-commerce but with little substance (should I be surprised?) Access costs are too high, she told delegates gathered at the fourth Scrambling for Safety conference at the London School of Economics, but offered no explanation as to how the government actually intends to force BT to lower prices.

The e-Minister Patricia Hewitt was at it again this week, full of earnest intentions about government plans for e-commerce but with little substance (should I be surprised?) Access costs are too high, she told delegates gathered at the fourth Scrambling for Safety conference at the London School of Economics, but offered no explanation as to how the government actually intends to force BT to lower prices.

"It is top of the agenda," she assured delegates. Right, well that solves that one then... Cheers Patricia.

Under debate at the Scrambling for Safety conference, which ZDNet co-sponsored by the way, was the question of state control over data and electronic information. Through the e-communications bill and the update to the Interception of Communications Act (IOCA), the government seems intent on keeping control of the Net and all who surf it.

Hewitt promised the government was not interested in spying but just needed to do the minimum of surveillance to keep law and order. Surrounded by privacy advocates as she pandered to the civil liberties brigade, the e-Minister looked slightly nervous but rather like William Hague donning a backwards baseball cap at the Notting Hill Carnival to prove his "hipness". Playing up her credentials as ex-director of the civil rights organisation Liberty, she attempted to reassure everyone that she understood the issues and was still a bit of a leftie deep down.

I, for one, did not feel reassured. However much she plays up her Liberty past she is on the other side now and there is nothing she can do to change that. The only concession I can see her making to Liberty now she is in government is popping in the department store to buy a scarf.

Or am I being too harsh? I have never been a great conspiracy theorist and the idea that the government cares what the average person is doing on the Internet has always seemed a bit absurd to me.

But spending the week trying to chase people in government to explain what they are really doing has changed my mind. Jim Norton of the Cabinet Office wrote a report on law enforcement and encryption on the Net and seemed like an ideal person to give an overview. Telephoning the Cabinet Office to speak to him, I was informed, somewhat ominously, that "he is no longer with us." Is the information he had so sensitive that the government was forced to shoot him once he had written his report, I wondered? Apparently not, but the Cabinet Office refused to give me a contact for him or even tell me what happens to report authors once the Cabinet Office has finished with them.

Being an intrepid reporter I did eventually track him down and he promptly told me that he hadn't been shot at and wasn't an expert at all: it was the Home Office I needed.

Er, not according to the Home Office, though, which directed me back to the Cabinet Office or possibly the Department of Trade and Industry. Both of which tried to bat me back to the Home Office.

I don't want to bore you with the details of my dreary week in the virtual corridors of power. I'm sure you get the basic idea.

The impression I get from trying to get answers to my questions is that whatever the government is doing, whether it be for the common good or not, they are keeping pretty quiet about it. And there is nothing like silence to get tongues wagging.

While expounding the need for the Internet to be allowed to flourish with as little government intervention as possible, there seems to be a surveillance agenda coming from somewhere -- and commentators variously accuse the Home Office, the intelligence services, the shadowy civil servants who really pull the strings of power and our pay-master general, the good old US of A, as being at the bottom of it.

Whatever they say, the government does want the power to listen in to our email conversations. It is watching us and storing data on us. The big question is whether there is a sinister reason behind government obsession with surveillance -- a dark, Big Brother side to this.

I am not sure. It seems to me the government view of the Internet is not so much Big Brother as Lord of the Flies. It comes from fear of the unknown rather than a desire to have state control. To use an analogy, it reminds me of an old-fashioned educationalist view of liberal schools. Children without rules will automatically turn to anarchy and as soon as adults turn their backs: The Lord of the Flies scenario, where children are eating each other and running wild, will come into force. So government views the Internet. The Internet may still be in its infancy but it is a whole lot more grown-up than the government gives it credit for.

That doesn't excuse the government for spying. In a world where liberty is being eroded by technology every step of the way, we have a right to complain. It is not now possible to go down the high street on a Saturday afternoon without cameras following us at every turn. Even if the authorities don't swoop down on us, forcing our faces into a cage full of rats (as happens to Winston Smith in 1984, for the less literary among us) then that does not make surveillance OK.

For the FBI, snooping on the Net is almost a hobby, and they must have been very pleased with their latest catch. Disney's Go Network vice president Patrick Naughton single-handedly destroyed Disney's sqeaky-clean image last week when he was arrested for allegedly meeting an underage girl for sex. Naughton allegedly met the girl on the Internet but the 13-year old turned out to be an (adult) FBI agent.

For Disney's PR machine it was not a week they will want to remember, and they definitely won't be making a cartoon or selling memorabilia of this one.

While there is a whole debate around whether the FBI should use such methods in their fight against paedophilia, to me the story illustrates a much more mundane point. What a strange and bizarre place the Internet is, with layers of deceit which would outwit Hercules Poirot. FBI agents posing as children, invisible secret agents listening in to email conversations...

Not so much Big Brother is watching you, as the world and his brother is.

Worried? Even if you aren't, you should definitely visit the Surveillance news special.

Oh, and let me know your thoughts: drop a line to the newsroom.

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