The scale of this revolution cannot be understated; it has altered the way we live our lives, the way our democracy works and the way our economy works. In this article, I will discuss how the internet has transformed these three areas and argue why it is time we had a dedicated Minister for the Internet.
For young people in Britain today, the internet is a vital part of their everyday lives. Through social networks we are able to communicate to, and stay connected with, our friends, family and communities. Indeed, we increasingly live our lives not with the internet, but through it.
On the face of it, Twitter is just a website that allows users to transmit messages of 140 characters to people who follow them. However, this simple idea has had a huge effect on society. For example, it arguably helped facilitate last year’s Arab Spring. The internet allows us to communicate our ideas and exercise freedom of speech in new ways. In the past, if we wanted information we would have to go to a library to look it up. Now we can Google for information instantly, or search for it on Wikipedia. This has allowed the public to have comparatively better informed debate on important issues than in years past. A better informed public openly voicing their opinions makes for a healthier and more open democracy.
Access to the internet has now become so important that it is registered by the United Nations as a human right. However, according to the Office of National Statistics, 16.1% of people in the UK have never used it. Many more are not able to make the most of the opportunities the web provides because of uneven broadband provision across the country. If the internet truly is a human right and a social good, then access must be distributed evenly across society.
Labour should start making bold plans to ensure that every citizen in our country has access to, and is able to use, the internet. A computer literate society is a more social, more accountable and more prosperous society. In 2011, the online giant Google made over $37.9bn in revenues, which is more than the GDP many countries produce. Businesses such as Valve Corporation and Apple have also generated enormous profits by making the most of today’s online economy. These businesses are unusual because Valve’s Steam and Apple’s iTunes facilitate a market in products which are not physical, but purely digital. The market for such products still has a lot of growing left to do, and so governments should grasp the opportunity to encourage investment in start-up web-based businesses. After all, no one knows where the next Google will come from.
However, not every development of the internet has been a positive one. When we put our information on Facebook, or when we Google something, we share personal information with these companies. It is not simply my family and friends who learn about what I’m interested in, but also the online businesses who facilitate these interactions. Most of us would not want the government to know personal things about us, so it is hard to understand why we acquiesce to businesses gathering the same information. The societal pressure for people to use and sign up to websites has undoubtedly given businesses an opportunity to take advantage of what we do online. This is why government must step in to ensure that users’ best interests are promoted at all times.
Legislation covering the internet is unevenly driven by private, not public, interests. Although copyright law may not seem like a salient issue to most people in Britain today, copyright legislation laws have inspired young people across the world to get politically active in order to stop acts such as SOPA, PIPA and ACTA. The success of Pirate Parties in elections across Europe is just an example of how mainstream politics has so far failed to engage with online issues properly.
This is why I advocate the creation of a Minister for the Internet. The internet is ultimately a public good and we must be properly represented in matters surrounding it. The online revolution has permanently changed our society, democracy and economy. Creating a specialist ministerial position would allow government to provide better access to information and facilities for citizens struggling to get to grips with the many issues surrounding internet use. The ministry would also be able to engage better and consult more widely on online issues. It would clearly set out the government’s online agenda, make its plans more transparent, provide a brief covering the right to internet access, and encourage the development of online businesses.
In years past we had a Postmaster General. In this online era, why can’t we have a Webmaster General?
Lewis Miller is a Young Fabians Member