Martin Bangemann, European Commission Vice-President

Reams have been written about the development of the Internet, and the future of new communications technologies in general. Some see the explosion of the Internet as the next leap forward, a technology that will revolutionise our lives; others see it as a harbinger of political or social disaster. As always, the truth is probably somewhere in between. We talk to a measured enthusiast, Martin Bangemann, European Commission Vice-President with responsibility for Information and Telecommunications Technology.

To what do you ascribe your evident enthusiasm for the Internet and new communications technologies in general?

First let us be clear that there is a difference between the Internet and a more general consideration of new telecommunications technologies. The impact of advanced telecommunications technologies is not restricted to the Internet and, in fact, users of the Internet are using only a very limited set of available technology. Advanced communications technology has the potential to provide new ways of working which are beneficial to many sectors of society. Examples include: businesses able to work more efficiently because of ready interchange of information; doctors able to get expert advice from colleagues elsewhere by using electronic imaging over telecommunications networks; people able to adopt more flexible working patterns by undertaking some work from home or from a local office linked to their main site; and the use of teleconferencing to cut down on travel.

The Internet provides a particular focus of interest owing to the fact that it is readily available to a large sector of the general public. The key feature is easy access to an enormous range of information. The WorldWide Web has made this information easy to access and, as a result, much more information is now in the public domain.

The Internet is growing at incredible speed; do you believe that this growth can be sustained?

The growth in the use of the Internet stems from the fact that more and more people are finding it a useful and relatively cheap resource. This demand is by no means satisfied, and the rate of growth may well be sustained for some time. However, there are several balancing factors which will begin to take effect. First, current interest contains a 'novelty' element: some users may be signing up because they see the Internet as 'fashionable', or because they want to understand it. These reasons are transient. Secondly, a key factor is that much of the information available is seen as 'free' (depending upon the service provider, of course). If large numbers of information providers start charging for access, demand could fall. Conversely, there are factors which could increase the rate of growth, such as the much-debated use of the Internet for speech - which could have dramatic effects should it take off. However, if the growth is to be sustained, the Internet will have to evolve to provide this extra capacity if an acceptable level of service is to be maintained.

The huge amount of information available can be bewildering. Do you see any way to organise the information, for example, through an 'indexing' system?

Industry is already responding to the need for engines to seek out relevant information on the Internet, and this remains an area where additional development work may be needed. The importance of such tools will increase as the amount of information available grows, and with it the proportion of low-grade and irrelevant material. The whole concept of the Internet does not lend itself to a centralised indexing system, but I suggest that serious users may, through consensus, arrive at a code of practice which assists this. Coupled with more user-friendly and advanced tools for locating suitable data, this situation can be accommodated, but if this is not addressed, the Internet's usefulness will be limited.

Where do you stand in the debate between those who argue for regulation of information on the Internet, and those who claim that the 'anarchy' of the system is its central virtue?

The implications of the 'information society' are far-reaching, and raise many social issues - one of them the regulation of information. I have set up an Information Society Forum, in which a group of experts from industry and political and social life are studying questions such as this one, and we are not yet ready to make recommendations.

On this particular issue, I would invite both camps to seek to understand the concerns of the other and to make constructive proposals on how to meet these concerns. European culture is tolerant within quite wide limits, provided that the tools are there so that, for example, parents can protect their children from what they see as unsuitable material. Individuals can publish on the Internet and, in so far as any regulation may be necessary, it may be appropriate for this to apply to individuals rather than to service providers. We hope that adequate standards can be maintained voluntarily, but I would not rule out the use of stronger action in exceptional cases. However, I would wish as far as possible to protect the openness of the Internet.

What other challenging issues are associated with the Internet?

On a technical level, information security is an issue. This includes the wider issues of copyright and traceable authenticity.

On a social level, we must seek to avoid a two-tier society, split between those who are Internet-literate and those who are not. This applies not just within the more industrialised countries, but between these countries and those parts of the world where the majority of the population has not even made a telephone call.

On a business level, we must address non-technical issues associated with global teleworking, such as people who work in one country, but are paid in another. This raises a variety of issues, among them the transfer of electronic goods and services between different tax regimes and social security payments by employer and employee.

Perhaps the most fundamental challenge is to weigh all the factors to arrive at a consensus on the appropriate uses for the Internet. The concept of the Information Society is often taken to mean a lifestyle in which everyone uses computers, or 'digital personal assistants', or whatever, all the time, for everything. The real challenge is to sift through the hype and to identify where the technology is of real benefit.

Business seems divided over the value of the Internet. How do you see it developing as a business tool?

The Internet is an ideal business tool for certain activities such as access to information, E-mail, and making information available on products offered on the market. However, the Internet cannot provide end-to-end Quality of Service and, for secure, reliable and immediate transactions and for other, more advanced applications, conventional telecommunications networks are more suitable. Of course, innovations in this area may mean that, in future, the Internet will provide a greater number of adequate services for business use.

To what extent do you think that the expansion of the Internet will change traditional relationships between politicians and voters?

There are several strands to this question. Firstly, I would see a greater availability of official and non-official data and information through the Internet and similar systems. This will inevitably heighten public awareness of issues, and in government generally I see this as a good thing for democracy.

With regard to individual politicians, I am sure that there will be a range of different responses, just as there are in the ways that politicians answer letters now. Politicians are still restricted to 24 hours in any day, and the amount of time that they can devote to individual discussions will not increase significantly as a result of this technology. There is also a danger that undue pressure for immediate opinions could lead to ill thought out decisions. There may therefore be greater 'accountability' in the narrow sense of obtaining immediate comments, but whether this leads to wiser decisions will depend upon how the politician uses the information he or she receives.

There is little doubt that the Internet will have a significant impact on many areas of our lives. Are you optimistic that we will be able to harness its potential effectively in the years to come?

There are real benefits to be had from the technology in many industrial sectors and in other areas of life such as education; this is reflected in the amount of attention being given to the subject, not just in Europe but in North America and in the Asia-Pacific region and, importantly, in international forums such as the G-7. However, history suggests that the virtues of grand new initiatives are often overstated and we must remain realistic. People who laud the virtues of the Internet unreservedly as an instant panacea for every problem do not take a realistic view of the practical and social changes necessary for the Internet to become widely used. Nor do they consider the position of the elderly, the infirm, or the less intellectually gifted, nor the fact that not everything electronic has to be good. The key is the use to which the technology is put. I am indeed enthusiastic about the contribution that advanced telecommunications and the Internet can make for enhancing knowledge, education and mutual understanding between groups of society, and for increasing the effectiveness of work in certain areas. The key is not just to harness it, but to steer it towards those uses which are the most suitable in the wider sphere of business and social needs.

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