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Jane Wakefield: Anarchy in the UK

The old bill faces off with those hippy types in Oxford... Jane Wakefield was there
Written by Jane Wakefield, Contributor

After a weekend when Winston Churchill briefly gained a green Mohican and Parliament Square found out the true meaning of flower power, the establishment will be looking for people to blame and you can bet your bottom dollar the Internet will be public enemy number one.

In the government's zeal to control the Internet, so-called anarchist riots like the one witnessed bank holiday Monday provide perfect grist to the government's mill. The National Crime Intelligence Service (NCIS) spent two years -- under the banner of Operation Trawler -- desperately looking for evidence that Internet crime was rife and failed to come up with a single statistic to back such a claim.

Then a few anarchists got out of hand in London last June and suddenly director general of NCIS, John Abbot had what he wanted -- the great unwashed organised their protests via the Net leading him to dub it "a facilitator for anarchy".

Which is exactly the phrase he used during a debate Friday at Oxford University on whether it was feasible or fair to attempt to police the Internet. There was no doubt where he stood on the issue -- without surveillance on the Net you may as well wave goodbye to the fabric of society. Listen to John Abbot for too long and you will be scared to click on your mouse ever again.

According to him, not only is the Net over-run with anarchists, it also has mob connections. There's money laundering, extortion and fraud commonplace as cyber activities not to mention a proliferation of porn -- or as he puts it -- "blackmailers, conmen and perverts".

In some ways the historic Oxford University debating chamber was an incongruous place to be discussing the most modern of mediums. Or then again perhaps it was the ideal setting -- it is after all the place where many budding William Hagues learn to love the sound of their own voices and the journey from Oxford to Westminster is a short one for the privileged -- punting up the river one minute and mouthing off in Westminster the next.

Interestingly, those currently running the country have embraced a law and order agenda in regard to the Internet with all the enthusiasm a teeniebopper might welcome their favourite member of SClub7. It would seem there is no end to the amount of money the government is prepared to chuck at policing the Net -- NCIS being the latest convert to Net snooping with a cool £25m going on an email surveillance centre. Not to mention the expense of implementing the widely criticised RIP (Regulation of Investigatory Powers) bill, which will cost tax-payers and ISPs alike millions of pounds.

During the Oxford debate, the counter-argument to police calls for a close eye to be kept on cyberspace, was made by a group of civil libertarians. They claimed the government was wrong in pursuing a law enforcement agenda in regards to the Net and that existing offline laws adequately covered online crime. Communication technology is no more dangerous than it ever was argues Avedon Carol, a leading feminist and civil rights campaigner. The printing press, TV and video were all viewed with suspicion but at the end of the day, attempts to curb freedom of speech on the Internet is "just another excuse for our leaders to find reasons why we don't have the right to talk to each other", she claims.

Which is a powerful and convincing argument and one I don't disagree with.

But as Peter Sommer, a computer security senior research fellow and technical adviser to the government, pointed out, there is a danger of over-romanticising the legendary free spirit ethos of the Internet. It is immensely irritating when old hippies go misty eyed when recalling Woodstock -- or indeed, early Glastonburys -- and you can't help feeling that standing around in a field with a spliff in your hand can't possibly have been that good. So too those that claim the Internet is some haven of free speech and has grown without the interference of government are kidding themselves. Let us not forget that the funding for the original Internet project came from the US government and a quick look around the Web reveals myriad corporate pages far more popular than the chatrooms and maverick Web sites civil libertarians love to point you to.

There is also no covering the fact that there is a dark side to the Net, where paedophiles can gather and exchange images and chase unsuspecting youngsters. But this crime has to be put in perspective -- last year the self-appointed porn police, the IWF (Internet Watch Foundation), handed over 11,000 indecent images of children to the police. No-one knows exactly how many pages are posted on the Internet but one thing is sure -- 11,000 is a tiny proportion.

So the discussion raged throughout Friday's debate as delegates were asked to vote on the motion -- "This house believes that any attempt by Government to police the Internet is both unworkable and a severe threat to civil liberties."

During the debate my thoughts kept returning to John Abbot's 'breeding ground for anarchy' comments, which I have to confess sent a shiver down my back. The subtext of his outburst is that the Net is disorderly and as a policeman he wants to impose order on it. That is a convincing enough reason to oppose him in my view.

So at the end of the day I was in no doubt about voting for the motion. As, I am pleased to say, did the majority of the attendees. The Internet, at least in the hallowed halls of Oxford, lives to fight another day.

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