Fundamental rights do affect IT industry

Discussions surrounding the World Summit on the Information Society are, I find, fascinating. They are bringing together a global spectrum of people with diverse views on the principles, rights and safeguards that underlie this information age.

Discussions surrounding the World Summit on the Information Society are, I find, fascinating.

They are bringing together a global spectrum of people with diverse views on the principles, rights and safeguards that underlie this information age – some would say “communication age” is a better description -- and its application to business and life in general.

But having just written another sizable story on the topic, I can hear the editor’s voice bringing me back to the touchstone: “What relevance has this for the everyday work of the IT manager?”

Universal declarations of freedoms and the like may not seem pertinent to the IT daily grind and the development of new technology, but they have a way of suddenly having the most inconvenient consequences for IT-facilitated business.

We saw this only a few years ago in the treatment of software for encryption. Now considered an essential requirement for e-commerce, truly secure versions of this technology were for a long time locked up in the US. Even local developers of strong encryption in New Zealand were prevented by our Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade from exporting it.

This bears directly on the objections of the Human Rights in the Information Society (HRSIS) caucus that national laws and regulations are being given too much prominence in the WSIS draft declaration of principles, at the expense of free transnational information flow.

The caucus also points out that in the clauses protecting intellectual property, the rights of owners, not creators, are being protected. This came to the fore in recent legal argument in the IT industry, regarding the rights of developers to keep designs and code they have incorporated in work for a client and to transfer it to another client.

I have attracted my share of criticism for being active in a liberal direction on the internet censorship front. I was astounded at the firmness with which a select committee rejected the contention I contributed to an InternetNZ legislative submission that in view of the rise of the internet we make an effort to rationalise the detail of censorship laws between countries. At present someone can render themselves liable to prosecution (with a suggrested 10-year sentence available to the judge) for downloading something that we may legally be able to look at in Australia, barely three hours’ travel away.

Again, it doesn’t seem important on the face of it for the IT industry, unless you happen to be an “adult webmaster”; but it’s an example of narrow nationalistic differences which seem increasingly irrelevant in the age of powerful transnational digital media.

The contention that this country is powerless to act on its own because others have different laws and different attitudes can becomes an excuse for inaction. The spam debate, for one, points that up. And spam is a concern for the IT manager and the IT user.

The IT revolution, beyond its advantages for commerce, raises significant questions about the continued relevance of national and legalistic boundaries to the free flow of information and innovation. Neglect of these questions can come back and bite the ICT industry in some very real and nasty ways.

Bell is a Wellington-based reporter for Computerworld. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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