Books

Published: 14/03/2002, Volume II2, No. 5796 Page 30 31

Code Red Progressive politics in the digital age By Ian Kearns.

Publisher: Institute for Public Policy Research.

ISBN: 1860301886. 56 pages.£8.95. www. ippr. org. uk

Ian Kearns should have published this book two years ago - he might have enjoyed being burned at the stake.

His heresy? To deny the holy trinity of internet doctrine: that the net conquers geography, economics and politics.

Specifically, he claims that the internet is not politically neutral and governments have both the ability and the duty to take charge to promote a 'progressive digital society'.

The government, he preaches, 'should now be paying attention to the task of generating a centre-left body of code that steers internet use in desirable centre-left social directions'.

Hence, make the 'Code Red'.

In the good old days of the internet bubble, such thoughts would have made Kearns a figure of hatred and ridicule in every bulletin board in the web - a man who clearly doesn't 'get the net'.Since the dot. com crash and 11 September, however, we have heard a lot less about the internet creating a world where geography and economics do not matter.

And voices that once parroted John Perry Barlow's ludicrous Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace - 'governments of the world. . . you have no sovereignty where we gather'- have grown a lot less shrill since the US demonstrated that it has sovereignty anywhere it damn well likes.

But while Dr Kearns may be safe from the Inquisition, it is a big jump to assume that the Blair government will follow Code Red's prescription, even if it does come from Number 10's favourite think-tank.

Remember that the UK's e-government project (which has now taken under its wing the NHS IT strategy) is driven with the goal of making the country the best place in the world for e-commerce.Not much red code there.

Dr Kearns argues persuasively that this is where danger lies.The internet is moving towards an architecture of social control, with ubiquitous information-gathering and sharing simultaneously threatening both privacy and social inclusion.Privacy is under threat from the arrival of digital certificates, which, among other things, are touted as the solution to the security issues surrounding electronic health records.

The snag is that a 'certificate rich' network creates a more searchable record of citizen-state interactions than ever before.Drug companies and health insurers, invited onto the bandwagon of public-private partnerships, will be especially interested in promoting them.

Social inclusion, meanwhile, is under threat from the use of 'profiling'technologies to measure individuals' risk profiles and to exclude those deemed too risky from insurance and other collectively based activities.

The Institute for Public Policy Research's solution is a package of measures to support a wired, liberal state.

It would embrace privacy-enhancing technologies and e-voting to create an active citizenry. It would also, on principle, favour opensource software for use in government.

One model is Canada, where the government is promoting broadband internet links for all - especially to improve access to healthcare.

Code Red shows a touching faith in government's willingness to assert its power in order to reduce it.The most touching line is the conclusion: 'The government now needs to put its politics into the network.'

Only a visitor from Planet Think Tank would be so confident that Britain's present government is interested in any politics, let alone red ones.