Sunday, January 25, 2009

The case for international co-ordination

There were several interesting (for different reasons) pieces in this morning's Observer which gave me pause for thought.

The first was a glib piece on the "plans" for a Google "GDrive" which technology correspondent David Smith says prompts "campaigners [to] warn that it would give the online behemoth unprecedented control over individuals' personal data." It quotes Peter Brown, executive director of the Free Software Foundation as saying: "does it matter to you that someone can see everything on your computer? Does it matter that Google can be subpoenaed at any time to hand over all your data to the American government?"

But surely this is the wrong question. The issue is surely that the world is globalising and the institutions which govern it are out of step with that trend.

In an excellent comment Will Hutton says of the financial crisis:
Nor is there any conversation about how bank bailouts would work better if they were internationally co-ordinated and funded, which is of huge importance to our very exposed Britain. Instead, banks everywhere are retreating to their own backyards.
As the interconnected nature of the credit crunch becomes clear, it is difficult to see how some kind of international institutional response can be avoided. And we now have a president in the White House who looks like he might be in tune with this.

The fact is that for 15 years now the internet has been changing the world and the political institutions have failed to keep up. Copyright law is just one example of how out of step our historical frameworks have become.

Increasingly we need to look for global solutions which reflect not only the rights to privacy but the collective responsibility to build structures which benefit the whole planet. The British Library is warning that we are in danger of losing our collective memories as it laments the increasing difficult of archiving the digital world. The solution is surely to recognise that the Google books project or Flickr's personal record, or the Wayback Machine are all much better bets to keep track of an online world than the individual efforts of national institutions like the British Library. They are more likely to be able to update en masse all files to the latest formats and to keep an increasingly large archive online and available for all.

Probably this will mean some kind of hived-off non-profit status for parts of their businesses, and probably it means putting these efforts under the wing of, say, the United Nations to ensure freedom from political interference. But so be it.

Some national laws look increasingly impotent in the face of the developing internet revolution. Perhaps this weeks Davos Economic Summit will start to address some of these issues?

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