Orwell online

The IT industry must take comfort from assurances by Frank March of the Ministry of Economic Development that the government is not about to try to assume control, directly or indirectly, of the internet.

The IT industry must take comfort from assurances by Frank March of the Ministry of Economic Development that the government is not about to try to assume control, directly or indirectly, of the internet.

This despite the threat to introduce a licensing scheme for ISPs if a voluntary code of practice does not come up to snuff.

However, in being willing to exert its authority to ensure orderly arrival and management of the ENUM phone-and-internet convergence scheme, government will raise doubts among the cynics that its IT policies are as far in the deregulatory direction as they were a decade ago.

Some of us remember the attempted introduction of the text-based online service videotex into New Zealand in the early 1980s. Quite a few entrepreneurs wanted to dive into the medium, including publisher Reg Birchfield, who was instrumental in the founding of Computerworld in this country.

But government said videotex proposals must be subjected to careful consideration. Instant (well, fairly quick) online information access may not be “suited to New Zealand culture”, we were told.

There followed more than a year of classic “paralysis by analysis” as a quango called the Communications Advisory Council (CAC) – based, I recall, in an old Wellington building with a rickety lift that probably skirted the borders of legality -- considered every angle of videotex operation including the layout of the keyboard. Yes, a government-appointed body seriously debated whether non-typing Kiwis would ever find their way around the jumble called qwerty, or whether it might be better to standardise on an alphabetically arranged keyboard for “ease of use”. There was to be no free choice, these were regulated times. The standard had to be one or the other.

The consequences were predictable: Birchfield and the other aspirants gave up and turned their attention to other things, and videotex never became a force in New Zealand. A pity in some ways, because we would otherwise have been made to cope with our children accessing what the French delicately called “les pages roses” – videotex pages with adult content. We might have learned some strategies to cope with the “porn and paedophile” question long before the internet hit us.

But the net came along, coincidentally, in the peak years of deregulatory thinking, and was left to private enterprise. Those who would speculate that government left it alone because they didn’t foresee its impact have forgotten videotex and the CAC. I suspect they kept their hands off it just because, in the words of Abraham Simpson, father of Homer, “it was the style at the time”.

With the tentative exercise of the all-to-visible hand of government on ENUM could we be seeing a small return to state control over IT and comms infrastructure? This is, after all, the era of creeping renationalisation, often under the name of “rescue”.

In my truly pessimistic moments, I’ve had a frightening vision. It starts when someone reports to the authorities that there might be a few illegal files in the servers of a well-known ISP. Internal Affairs sends out its software bloodhound (see Porn sniffer easily put off scent) and sure enough, a cache of nasties is uncovered. The media goes ape over the possibility of a New Zealand illegal porn trading ring. In accordance with an over-strict CoP, enforced the previous year by, or at the urging of, government, the ISP is fined heavily. It becomes insolvent. Government steps in with a “rescue bid”, trumps the Australians who are angling to buy it and promises us continuity of service with the sparkling efficiency of Tranz Rail and Air New Zealand. They call it PGI – Previous Generation Internet.

Yes, of course I’m joking and making a lot of wild assumptions. But, as they say, stranger things (like the videotex farce) have happened. There will be voices of moderation in government stressing that powers like ENUM control and ISP licensing or CoP enforcement will be used responsibly. I think back to what I once told the progenitor of the censorious Technology and Crimes Bill.

"I'm not so concerned at what you might do, Mr Rogers. I'm concerned at what any conceivable government of the future might do with this power in its hands."

I believe alongside the batallion of technical innovators we have Roger Douglas and David Lange to thank for the internet we have today in New Zealand. We should watch for what InternetNZ vice-president Rick Shera called "death by a thousand legislative cuts". Don't let the precious ground slide away.

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

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