Internet (Governance) — [Mr Joe Benton in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 26th October 2011.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Labour, Cardiff South and Penarth 2:30 pm, 26th October 2011

We have not needed to. We have had three Ministers this year by mutual agreement, and I am pleased by that response. Ministers have been prepared to come to meet us and industry representatives. The fact that Ministers and parliamentarians are at the table brings chief executives there, and the fact that chief executives come complements the other meetings that we have, in which people with more technical or detailed knowledge are able to take part. My hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire prompts me to note that I had missed out a reference to the British-American Parliamentary Group, another of the distinguished band of organisations that are important in the work.

I have already referred to the fact that the arrangements are already working in relation to our communications with the Home Secretary. In response to the request for comment, we have received responses from a number of parliamentarians, including my hon. Friend Chi Onwurah, the hon. Members for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) and for Harlow (Robert Halfon), and others who were more frequently involved in the all-party group’s work. Key points were made that the riots were not a breakdown of society as a whole, but isolated incidents of unrest followed relentlessly by the 24-hour media, and that the internet and online social networks were a channel for a widespread outpouring of positivity and reconstructive effort after the riots. That must be considered in balance with the use of the internet by some people to organise some of the activity. In the case of the police in Manchester, when people tweeted to say where the next activity was going to take place, the police tweeted back to say, “Thanks for telling us. We will be there too.” Therefore, it is not all one way.

Part of PICTFOR’s role is to raise our game at the international level, persuading more parliamentarians to engage with the IGF, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the IPU, and directly with members of overseas Parliaments, particularly the Americans, whom we are engaging through an annual internet event in Congress. The most important aspects are to use the partnership between MPs and industry representatives to inform Parliament in the mainstream rather than at the periphery, to ensure that we continue to punch above our weight in protecting the concept of an open, co-operative and multi-stakeholder approach to internet governance, and to fight off attempts to impose a centralised and bureaucratic approach to managing the internet, whether in terms of critical infrastructure, online behaviour or the exploitation—in a positive sense—of the internet’s potential.

We are bringing together opinions from industry and Parliament. I wish I had some time to enumerate the comments that have come in. We had hoped for a longer debate, but we are grateful for the opportunity today to raise these issues. We intend to summarise all the issues and provide them to both the Minister and MPs to inform future debates.

Just to pick up one point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, there will be one debate a year to look at the overarching issues with the internet. The internet touches on so many issues that there are bound to be debates on Bills and on the Adjournment regarding specific issues, including those that have been raised by some hon. Members in their interventions on me.

My message to parliamentarians and to business is that, although good governance may sound boring, it is essential. Banking governance was boring, until the failure of governance in the world’s banks brought the international financial structures to collapse. Let us avoid such a debacle online by fighting for good co-operative governance of the internet now.

At a time of massive constraints on the public purse—I will not go into the discussion about whether they need to come so fast or cut so deep—it is not just tempting to use the efficiency of the net to deliver public services, but right and essential. However, that would involve a massive improvement in the quality of public procurement, of which I had some experience as a Minister. It is vital to recognise that some 40% of those who are not online at the moment were shown in recent research to be so resistant to going online that they would not do so even if they were provided with free broadband and a free computer. Some may be resistant or even perversely reluctant; others may simply be unable to cope. That latter group includes some of the most vulnerable people in our society. It follows that the exploitation of online delivery options by the Government needs to be costed in a way that ensures the availability of services to those who do not go online, which might involve paying for facilitation, perhaps at local libraries or in post offices. However, if it is not built into the Government’s model, it will bring online delivery into disrepute and widen the digital divide into a chasm, ultimately creating a problem that will involve even more expense to solve than building in the solution at the design stage.

Cloud computing is often highlighted as a challenge to public services, but in many ways, it is already with us. The challenge, in my view, is good management, including good data management, rather than major issues of principle. Security of infrastructure and our national security are enormously important, and they are given considerable emphasis by the Government. However, it is also important to deal with the low-level crime and nuisance activity that face people every day. I am pleading for a broken windows approach to the internet. Having succeeded in local crime reduction, that approach would be able to help us in the online world.

I am also a little concerned about the language that is creeping into the discussion. I challenged some police officers who talked about “cyber” as if it were a term of art to describe a discrete chunk of reality. They responded by saying that the police were merely reflecting the language of Ministers. If that is the case—I am not sure that it is—we need to change the language. Internet-related crime is not entirely about technology; indeed it is mainly about human behaviour and criminal activity. The use of the internet is relevant only in the same way that a burglar uses a motorway or footpath to reach someone’s house to break in.