ZDNet UK News interviews e-Minister Patricia Hewitt

After months of chasing, ZDNet has finally been given an interview with government e-Minister Patricia Hewitt. Jane Wakefield, will be asking the questions you want answered
Written by Jane Wakefield, Contributor

In a week when the debate between BT, Oftel, the government and industry over Internet access costs reached boiling point, ZDNet News is about to gain exclusive access to the woman behind the government's Internet policy -- e-Minister Patricia Hewitt.

The government seems to have fallen seriously in love with the Internet. Tony Blair courts new Internet companies and hypes up the key role e-commerce will play in the UK economy as we enter the 21st century. He has gone from self-confessed technophobe to surfer geek in a few short months.

The Chancellor, Gordon Brown, well known as a more adept computer user, is also getting in on the act, devoting a key speech to Internet costs and the need to drive them. While the speech angered BT, it clearly delighted many of its critics.

But grabbing less headline space, is the woman working at the coalface to implement Labour's digital vision -- e-Minister Patricia Hewitt. She was appointed last July to turn around the government's technology policy, which was in need of some New Labour spin. The centrepiece of government policy, the old e-commerce bill, was being criticised for its heavy-handed insistence on key escrow -- where e-traders would be forced to lodge encryption keys with a trusted third party. Civil libertarians were up in arms about proposals for the police to have access to encryption keys. The government was thought to be out of touch and disinterested in the Internet revolution, and its own departments were only slowly getting wired.

Now the picture is very different. Hewitt has turned around the e-commerce bill, removing key escrow and police powers to force suspects to hand over encryption keys. Whitehall is promising to move to Internet time, and drag its reluctant civil servants with it. Hewitt has been given her own civil servant, Alex Allan, whose job it is to oversee the wiring of government.

But behind the spin, serious questions remain unanswered. Despite government pressure on BT to lower Internet access costs, its unmetered offering Surftime has been widely criticised as not going nearly far enough. BT itself seems on the brink of changing the original tariffs of the service. Unbundling of the local loop, where BT hands over its keys to other operators, is still dragging along at snail's pace. Oftel's role has also come under the microscope and is found to be wanting -- most industry commentators have completely lost faith in the watchdog. BT still owns 85 percent of the domestic telco network and Oftel often seems clueless about what the company is doing.

With a dominant telco given carte blanche to act as it likes, what can the government do? In a free market economy, what role can government play in forcing change? How far can it intervene, and is affordable access for everyone a necessity or luxury?

The government claims it recognises that Internet time is very different to Whitehall time. The last government was told by worried industry leaders back in the summer of 1996 that BT's stranglehold of the telecoms market would stifle e-commerce. So why has it taken the present government this long to take up the Internet ball and run with it?

Government Web sites have come in for a roasting as the National Audit Office finds departments are wasting millions of pounds of taxpayers' money on inefficient and out-of-date sites. In response, the government has set up a committee to oversee its digital revolution. So what practical ways are there for the government to save money, and citizens to save time, by putting services online?

While the e-communications bill has been tidied up and is now pretty acceptable to most people, the worries over police access to decryption keys hasn't gone away -- it has simply been shifted to the Home Office, under the guise of the RIP (Regulation of Investigatory Powers) bill. How is the RIP any different to the e-communications bill and why, if it was no good for inclusion in the e-communications bill, is it fine in the new Home Office bill?

Perhaps this is the most worrying question of all. Despite its seeming commitment to the Internet, the government seems determined to fragment its e-policy across departments. Why is Gordon Brown putting access charges at the top of the agenda, when pricing is clearly the remit of the e-Minister? Why has the Home Office taken responsibility for surveillance of the Internet?

These are just some of the questions ZDNet News will be putting to Patricia Hewitt. To find out how she answers them, bookmark www.zdnet.co.uk/news Friday.

Editorial standards