Jane Wakefield: Bullies, teenagers and Net giants

Last week wasn't great for all those would-be Net shoppers as naughty teenagers got away with murder
Written by Jane Wakefield, Contributor

Hacking is back in the headlines as the leading Web sites of the world fall like ninepins to an attack described by one expert as something a teenager could do.

Which does little to instil consumer confidence about the stability of the Internet at a time when the marketeers are practically bullying us to get online and browse and shop till we drop.

Anyone who has followed the IPO story of the Internet will know that the Web has wild west laws all of its own. A world where companies without product are guaranteed millions if they put dot com on their name and entrepreneurs scramble like ants on a anthill to get to the top before their rivals. And in this world publicity is all, even if its bad.

So surely the Yahoos, Amazons and Ebays of this world will be congratulating themselves this week for being important enough to be hacked. In the brave new Web world, branding is the single biggest distinguishing factor in the race to glue eyeballs to the screen and getting your company name plastered all over the front pages of the national papers is one sure fire way of getting yourself known

And when the headlines describe you as "one of the world's leading Web sites" -- well that is a PR's dream come true. The tiny fact that the story behind the headline is how you fell victim to a hacking campaign that brought your site down is irrelevant to the publicity hungry dotcommers. And for the ones that missed out on this denial of service attack, never mind, there will almost certainly be another opportunity. In this vein, ZDNet is proud to count itself among the elite, one of the world's leading Web sites. The rest you can work out for yourself.

The FBI is also delighted by the new profile cyber crime has attracted and, as a result of this week's publicity, is apparently going to be fed shedloads of money from the Clinton administration in order to combat it. Some of the loonier conspiracy theorists are even suggesting it might be responsible for the attacks.

In the UK, cybercrime is also back in the news as the government hides behind the smokescreen of online criminals to get away with a cyber snooping bill. On Thursday the government finished its final chapter of its e-communications book when it published its much feared Regulation of Investigatory Powers bill. It would seem Jack Straw is so concerned about the dangers of Internet crime, he has decided to give the authorities carte blanche to spy on our online activities.

Known as RIP to its friends (it has few) and its enemies (it has many), the bill would benefit from taking advice from eighties Indie band Orange Jucie. "Rip it up and start again" would definitely be the best thing for it. While privacy advocates question why the government needs the ability to intercept email, Human Rights campaigners point out that the bill breaks the European Convention of Human Rights. It reverses the burden of proof (if you are suspected of owning a decryption key, you are now guilty until proven innocent). And finally the government has incensed Internet service providers who will have to shell out millions to get interception equipment installed.

But perhaps the most shocking aspect of the bill is the way the government has blatantly repackaged Part 111 of the e-communications bill and IOCA (Interception of Communications Act). Both of these were condemned as bad legislation, so the government abandoned them, only to make them reappear in the form of RIP. A magic trick, without the magic. So when I say "repackaged", I use the word in its loosest possible sense because you couldn't get a Rizla paper between the two old bills and RIP. In fact some critics suggest that RIP is even worse than the others.

If you give someone a unsuitable, inappropriate and offensive present, taking it back and wrapping it in different paper is not going to make it any less unsuitable, inappropriate and offensive. It is a simple idea but one the government seems unable to grasp.

It seems the Labour administration is determined to bite the hand that feeds it, ignoring the views of industry, imposing heavy costs (and it is yet to disclose how much it will cost to install surveillance equipment) on service providers and adding to the growing fear among the public that there is no privacy to be had online. And while it does so, it bleats on about creating the best environment for e-commerce.

RIP stands for Rest in Peace and many industry watchers would be more than happy to dig the bill's grave. While the government may rest in peace that it has finally got control of the Internet back, the important question is, can we?

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