When politics clogs up the tubes

Written by Alex Watson

August 17, 2006 | 16:10

Tags: #dont-be-evil #politicians

Companies: #google #microsoft

It has been a depressing couple of weeks in which the venal past-time that is politics has done wonders for its reputation: the failure to deliver a quick cease-fire in Lebanon, the continuing violence in Iraq and Afghanistan, the V-for-Vendetta stylings surrounding the latest Al-Qaeda terror plot…

I am probably losing your attention already. Politics is not popular and politicians aren’t seen as relevant – only 60% of the British population voted in the 2005 General Election, and 42% in the US in 2004. If Google ran life, the famously efficient Google algorithm would not afford them much relevance.

What, you might wonder, does this have to do with technology and PC hardware? They are of course, as so many things are in this world, connected – by a series of tubes.

"Politics is not popular and politicians aren’t seen as relevant"

If you’ve been living in a internet-less hole you might have missed the ramblings of US Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who, while addressing a Senate Commerce committee meeting about amendments to a communications bill gave a splendidly painful speech explaining how the internet works. Trucks, tubes and all. You can listen to the whole thing here; Stevens starts at about 1 minute 13 seconds in, or, you can just watch the Daily Show on You Tube, here).

Senator Stevens isn’t the only one who is, to put in bluntly, a n00b – here in the UK, Tony Blair getting his own e-mail account was regarded as an event so momentous that it deserved a report from the BBC.

Politicians are famous for not getting it – whether ‘it’ is popular music, video games, iPods, the menace posed by hooded jumpers and rappers – but when it comes to computer technology this ignorance has got to be seen as increasingly untenable.

It’s time we made our elected representatives realise that they need to understand the technology and those issues in particular which are brought into focus by the internet, because it’s becoming increasingly integral to the way we live. Currently, the vast majority of this technology is controlled and supplied by big corporations. It’s not often we stop to think about corporations – they do, after all, provide us our daily bread and a lot more besides. But we should remember their purpose. As Joel Bakan writes in his excellent book ‘The Corporation’, "The corporation’s legally defined mandate is to pursue, relentlessly and without exception, its own self-interest, regardless of the often harmful consequences it might cause to others."

Those of you savvy in US politics (i.e. you’ve seen an episode of the West Wing) will probably realise why such a lametarded internet user as Senator Stevens has come to care so passionately about the tubes getting blocked up – as Bakan writes, "Whether through lobbying, political donations, or public relations campaigns, corporations seek to influence the democratic process… to ensure that governments do not restrict their freedoms and frustrate their self-interested missions."

Corporations desire profit, and writing their own rules is an efficient way to get to this profit. DRM is a clear example of this. DRM frequently confines users’ rights to ‘fair use’, giving a company more rights than copyright law legally ascribes to them. DRM is not just a technological hassle, it’s law-making on the sly.
Now, you might argue government regulation hasn’t, so far, done a great job of controlling tech companies – after all, Windows XP N (the European legally-mandated version without Media Player) is probably the only joke I know with ‘N’ as a punch line, and the delays to Vista can be partly attributed to the attrition of regulation. However, the attentions of the EU and US regulators have been successful in forcing Microsoft to examine its ethics. Redmond recently outlined a set of principles and explicitly stated that it:

"…recognizes the important role its Windows desktop operating system products play in the information economy and the responsibilities that come with that role… Microsoft is committed to running its Windows business in accordance with the following principles that address computer manufacturer and user choice, opportunities for developers, and interoperability for users."

"The delays to Vista can be partly attributed to the attrition of regulation"

Sure, it’s not as snappy as Google’s ‘Don’t Be Evil’, but there’s a lot of substance to Microsoft’s recently announced ethical code and it only happened because Microsoft has had been investigated by Government.

While governments have worked out that a company like Microsoft is worth regulating, they’ve been slower at dealing with broader technology issues like DRM, Net Neutrality and the role of the internet in general.

There are signs of change though: websites in the UK like They Work For You make it very easy for people to access an MP’s voting record and track their behaviour. My local MP even has a blog, and perhaps, given the attention he received from political blogs, John Prescott has been figuring out a decent RSS reader to keep track of what’s being said out there.

There is, of course, a difference between courting the opinion of bloggers – which is just like that old political skill, courting the opinion of journalists – and actually having a thought-out idea about how the internet and technology should be run for the benefit of everyone that uses them rather than just rich companies. It’s important for politicians to make that leap.

Along with schools, taxes, roads and the army, I want to see what they think about the net in their manifestos. And if not, maybe I’ll vote for the Pirate Party next time around. Beginning in Sweden, and inspired by the trials of everyone’s favourite BitTorrent tracker, The Pirate Bay, The Pirate Party is intending to contest Sweden’s national elections, taking place in September. They are a single issue party, and in Sweden’s proportional representation electoral system, could have some success. Reliably cranky IT pundit-extraordinaire John C Dvorak even sounded a little inspired by their intentions, before sounding his customary note of cynicism:

"Let me tell you something. You do not want youth politicizing…. There are lots of them. They often have a lot of spare time. En masse they can ruin things for the “establishment.” Luckily, they tend to be lazy and cynical and seldom take to the streets or the ballot."

So come election time, ask your MPs, your representatives, what they think about issues like Net Neutrality, DRM and copyright reform – and if they don’t have a response, ask them why they deserve your vote.

(Oh, and if you’re interested, you can read the definitive solution to the problems of the internet here. No, really.)

Alex Watson is Reviews Editor for Custom PC.

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