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UK government view on the Net's problems

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Light-touch regulation, minimal legisation and a close working relationship with business is the answer to the net's problems, not least child pornography, according to UK secretary of state for trade Alun Michael.

Speaking to us at the World Summit, where he was the UK government's most senior representative, Michael said that working with industry on the child porn issue in particular had achieved more in one year that legislation could have done in five - and at minimal cost.

"Light regulation is the way forward. And a partnership between government and industry, and government and the voluntary sector. If you get those relationships right, you can get further than with a top-down regulatory approach.

"It’s not a soft approach, in many ways it’s a tough approach, but it’s one built on building relationships, building confidence and moving forward together."

It was in government's own interest to work with business and civil society, rather than attempt to deal with the internet and the problems it throws up with new laws, he said. "Convergence of technologies makes it very difficult to have a rigid approach to regulation and to government. There are things that need to be dealt with - issues like international terrorism and child pornography - but our approach is light-touch regulation in co-operation with industry wherever possible. And we shouldn’t have regulation that anticipates problems that may never arise. Flexibility is very important."

Alun Michael, secretary of state for Trade Part of that flexibility can come within government itself. Picking up an e-content World Summit Award for www.direct.gov.uk, Michael said the reason for its success was that it provided a simple "front door" for citizens wanting information. "An awful lot of people don’t necessarily want to now about the structures of government, and therefore which department to go to. What they want is the information that they need."

Direct.gov.uk links 18 government departments, local and national with various agencies in one portal.

With respect to the controversial issue of internet governance, Michael said it has shown the UK in the best light. "The UK has come out of this with a great deal of credit. We are leading the EU representation, we have managed to reach agreement across the EU on a single position. And we’ve ended up with a document coming out of the Summit - one that even at the quite late stages looked as if there would not be agreement - which has helped everyone to move forward."

He acknowledged the intense lobbying effort of the US to maintain the existing structure, and also that UK business also pushed in the same direction. "Business was afraid that this conference would come out with something that would be unworkable, which would interfere with the way business could develop and expand. We're very pleased that we’ve come to the right outcome."

In the end it was a matter of "if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it", he said. "We feel there is a system that is working well at the moment. We recognise there are concerns, but the important thing is that people are talking to each other and listening to each other.

"We know that the American had concerns, because they made them clear both publicly and privately, and that there were other countries that wanted to take things into a governance structure. What has come out of this is strengthened relationships, listening to each other, and a flexible strucutre that allows talking and listening to take place."

As to the issue of human rights and freedom of expression on the internet, which also became a big topic at the summit, Michael declined to expand on the UK's official representations to the Tunisian government, stating only that: "Freedom of the internet is very important to us, and we have made that clear both on behalf of the EU and UK in the build-up to the conference and during it."

Adding his weight to the sea-change in United Nations meetings (the Geneva and Tunis summits have been the first ever to include civil society as an equal member), he added: "The UN has made it clear that the involvement of civil society is absolutely basic to any country hosting a conference of this sort. Where it has been necessary for us to also make that clear, we have been willing to do so." ®

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