It is a feature of human endeavour that whenever two or more people come together with a common interest they will form a lobby. In fact, modern liberal democracies positively encourage it, or at least the highly paid lobbying firms do anyway. The spin doctors who hog the headlines in the news are just the most highly visible form of this branch of evolution. Many other groups such as charities, trade unions and industry pressure groups also lobby away, often to great effect.
The people who have developed the Internet, and by this I mean a large number of the 80-odd million people world wide who regularly use the thing, have not been slow to channel some of their creativity towards the formation of lobbying groups. Amongst the usual alphabet soup of acronyms are the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA), the Internet Advertisers Bureau (IAB), ABC Electronic not to mention all the host of small groupings who champion this piece of software or that technology.
But in all this there is one group who have yet to join together to make their voices heard. I'm talking about those people who aren't part of some industry or governmental special interest, who don't have money to shmooze the movers and shakers or agree something amongst themselves which can be foisted on the rest of us. I mean, in short, the Internet users.
There are a huge number of issues which have been thrown up by the emergence of the Internet as a new medium both for businesses and the consumer where the user's voice is simply not being taken into account. Or rather many of them are being taken up by other organisations who have campaigned on behalf of what they think people think. Obvious ones which spring to mind are child protection vs censorship debate and the security of ecommerce transations across the net. Some of these organisations such as Internet Watch Foundation and the Which? organisation are doing a reasonable job, but they don't represent, or particularly claim the membership of the average Internet user. Also many of them tend to be single issue campaigners rather than standing up for the rights of Internet users on a broad spectrum of topics.
The standards and the technology which will determine the future shape of the Internet are being set now and with bugger all input from the people who are going to have to use it. Without some kind of representation at the table, stuff is going to get imposed on us by corporations and by government and quasi-government agencies whether we like it or not. Then the only choices we will have is to winge about it or vote with our feet - assuming there is anywhere else we can walk to. .
Here are a few of the major issues which an Internet users group ought to address.
- Taxes: Unlike the US which has adopted a hands off' approach to taxation across the Internet, the European Commission has decreed that ecommerce will be subject to VAT - even if you buy the product from the US. The only issue is that they haven't worked out how to send you the bill yet. Have you been asked if this is a good idea?
- Censorship: Of course children should be protected from the seedier side of the Internet, but how? And how much freedom are you willing to forego in order to protect the vulnerable?
- Quality of your ISP: Do you like the level of service your ISP provides? Could it be better? Could it be cheaper? And what about the telecom charges?
- Online Banking: Yes, those people who charge you £25 to send you a letter want to tempt you into banking online, presumably so they can charge you £25 to send you an email. What kind of service should they be providing and how secure is it?
- E-commerce: Everyone agrees that the future of the Internet lies with ecommerce. The trouble is that there a dozen different ways to shop and buy. How about setting a few standards for how you pay your money? When I go into a shop I don't expect to spend fifteen minutes working out how to get the goods delivered. How about a standard interface for ecommerce?
- Software wars: Despite the best efforts of the World Wide Web Consortium, the net is still stalled over standards for dynamic html, Java and a whole bunch of other piddling arguments over competitive advantage. We should band together and bang a few boardroom heads together.
But, what do you think? Are you happy to let the big corporations and governments dictate how you will be spending the rest of your working lives and how you will get online at home? Email me and I'll report back your views.