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Dr Kees de Vey Mestdagh: ‘MPs, wake up to the importance of the internet!’

29 August 2012

Although we are becoming increasingly dependent on the internet and earn an increasing share of our income that way, online developments are playing no part at all in the campaigns for the upcoming parliamentary elections. IT lawyer Kees de Vey Mestdagh of the University of Groningen finds this extremely surprising. ‘Our politicians are claiming that they can protect our freedom and safety and regulate our economy. In the physical world they are doing just fine, but online they are lagging far behind. It’s high time our MPs woke up and realised how important the internet is.’

‘According to a recent report by the Boston Consultancy Group, our internet economy will double in the period from 2011 to 2016. In the entire G-20 the internet economy will grow from two to more than four billion dollars. Soon the internet economy will constitute about ten percent of the total economy. A lot of money can be made online – also by the government, in the shape of tax revenues. Anyone who thinks that the internet is simply a nice new medium, one of the many media we have, should wake up instantly. A whole new society is rising online, parallel to our physical society. That society is becoming increasingly important, but no-one is your boss and no individual government can guarantee your freedom, digital property rights and safety. Our politicians simply have not realised this.’

Wishful thinking

‘Governments think that they can govern the internet like they can govern their country. They think that introducing rules and regulations is enough. That is wishful thinking. Governments can oblige citizens to carry proof of identity with them in the streets, where the police may ask for it. On the internet there is no such such thing as identity. Anyone who wants to can evade the rules and regulations on the internet. Take for instance the new Dutch legislation on cookies. The only thing you have to do to evade this legislation is put your website on a foreign server. Or take a look at the download sites that are being blocked in one country after another, but that stay online anyway simply because they can cross national boundaries and move from one country to another fast if necessary.’

New techniques

‘On the internet individual governments cannot guarantee the safety, freedom, property and privacy of citizens anymore, that is what it comes down to. On the internet citizens are completely on their own, which leads to an entirely new role for governments. The only thing they can do, and should do, is help citizens protect themselves, for instance with telephones, computers and software that are hard to crack. Governments must ensure that new security technologies are developed and built into telephones and computers, making them available to everyone.’

Gathering pace

‘In the long term these standards will be introduced no matter what. Citizens are becoming increasingly assertive and independent and will take care of their own safety, economic transactions and privacy. People who are handy with computers are already able to protect themselves against viruses and all kinds of other threats. Private parties such as banks are delivering the techniques for reliable economic transactions. The techniques used by businesses and individuals are becoming more widely accessible. The government can ensure that this process picks up pace by stimulating the development of technical standards, by informing citizens and by encouraging education and research in this field. This way they can make sure that not only an elite but the entire population is safe on the internet.’

The power of Europe

‘The development of worldwide technical standards cannot be stimulated sufficiently at national level but only at a European level. On the internet the EU is an important “power factor”. The EU has 500 million inhabitants and the member states have more or less the same ideas about freedom, privacy, ownership and fundamental rights. If the EU developed technical standards that guaranteed freedom and privacy and imposed them in all member states, that would set things in motion at a global level. This is not only important for the development of the internet, but also a great economic stimulus.’

Lack of information, knowledge and insight

‘The fact that our politicians show so little interest in the internet is probably due to a lack of information, knowledge and insight. They simply do not realise how important and how different the internet is and that the Dutch dikes do not provide any protection against digital threats. The digital society cannot be governed, that is something our politicians should realise. However, the digital society can be guided and facilitated and that is a very important responsibility for our future MPs.’

Curriculum vitae

Dr Kees de Vey Mestdagh teaches Law & IT at the University of Groningen and is founder and head of the University’s Centre for Law & IT. This department provides Bachelor’s and Master’s degree programmes at the interface of technology and legal studies that are unique in the Netherlands. De Vey Mestdagh publishes in the field of IT-related legal questions, Internet Governance and the normative application of IT. He studied Law and Psychology at the University of Groningen, where he also gained his PhD in information technology law.

Last modified:28 November 2017 4.54 p.m.
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