Internetið - stjórn á því (enska)

Minister of Education, Science and Culture:
Conference arranged by CSEI and SUS.
Reykjavík 16 October 1998.

Lex Cybernetoria
It is with great pleasure that I address you here at the opening of this conference which Center for the Study of Emerging Institutions and Samband ungra sjálfstæðismanna have arranged on the Internet.

I would especially like to welcome our foreign guests and I hope your visit to Iceland will be both enjoyable and useful.

Small societies are in many ways an ideal testing ground for projects related to the new technology. Solutions that are worked out in small societies can with ease be transferred to larger societies. The problems to be solved are the same, whether we are dealing with a population of 270.000 as in Iceland or 270 millions as in the United States. The stakes may be higher in the States, but the right of the individual is the same.

This year of 1998 the Internet is used by 100 million people all over the world and some experts predict that the users will reach a thousand million in 2005. Those figures are not high in relation to the world population and they indicate that a large part of humanity will not have the opportunity to use this new technology. In this connection one also has to keep in mind that even now three-quarters of the world's population does not have a telephone let alone a modem or a computer.

In this country we are highly advanced both in the field of telecommunications and computers. About 40% of Icelanders use the Internet regularly, and there are some 40.000 subscribers to the World Wide Web in Iceland. At a Ministerial conference on higher education held by UNESCO in Paris last week one specialist drew attention to the fact that there are more people with access to the Net in Iceland than in the whole of Africa.

At this conference here in Iceland you will discuss what rules are necessary to govern cyberspace. We want to be able to protect lawful users from criminals we also want to ensure intellectual property rights and we want to be able to to use cyberspace to do business in a secure way. The question is who shall have the authority to set the rules and enforce them. Shall we put our trust in public government or private or community governance?

Debating the role of the Internet is therefore highly relevant from a political point of view. We are today faced with so many new and sensitive issues, which are inherent in the information revolution where the Internet has a central position.

To illustrate this point I would like to mention for instance the current debate in Iceland about a proposed legislation on a health database. By putting available information in such a database we create something new which has a significant global scientific and medical value for genetics-related research due to the extraordinary genealogies of Iceland. This on the other hand creates complicated legal and ethical problems and in the debate on the database, the focus has been on the consent of individual Icelanders to participate in the project, the confidentiality, the financial rewards and scientific access.

The wider implications of the information revolution are well described in the last issue of Foreign Affairs in an article by two American professors on power and interdependence in the information age. They maintain that the quantity of information available in cyberspace means little by itself. The quality of information and distinction between types of information are probably more important. Information does not just exist; it is created.

The authors are of the opinion that a plenitude of information leads to a poverty of attention. Attention becomes the scarce resource, and those who can distinguish valuable signals from white noise will gain power. The demand for editors, filters, interpreters and cue-givers is steadily increasing, and one has to realize that there lies the source of power. There will be an imperfect market for evaluators but brand names and the ability to give an international seal of approval will become more important.

Political struggles focus more on control of the creation and destruction of credibility than on control of the ability to transmit information. Struggles of this kind can be seen everywhere. Spin-doctors have a very important role to play in politics and also in the business community. In many instances the fight for credibility is a global one. The Internet gave all of us instant access to the Starr-report as well as other information on Clinton and Lewinsky. Thus people all over the world were drawn into the dispute over Clinton´s credibility.

Cyberspace opens new opportunities to persuade politicians. Pressure groups operate irrespective of national boundaries and those governments that limit the access of their citizens to the Internet are considered undemocratic at the same time as they are faced with growing political and economical difficulties.

To illustrate the international pressure and targeting of politicians on the World Wide Web I would like to mention that an American Professor of Law and an American Cancer Society Professor sent me by e-mail comments on Iceland's proposed health database legislation, which in their view raises serious ethical and scientific questions. I do neither know if this is part of a coordinated effort to influence all Icelandic MP´s nor if we are faced with an action across borders in this matter. We are, however, obviously faced with such an action by those who oppose whaling in Icelandic waters.

On the other hand cyberspace gives politicians the possibility to approach their electorate in a new manner. By creating their own home pages they can publish anything they want to get across in their own name and comment on what is said in the press or by their opponents.

Joe Firmage, a 28-year-old head of Internet services company USWeb said recently: „I am extremely optimistic that the Internet is a democratizing force for the world. It sucks the truth out of people and institutions and is an incredible communications vehicle for the truth. I do believe that it presents challenges for our economy, which have by no means been figured out.” I do agree with this young man.

There are truly limitless opportunities to inform, communicate and trade on the Internet. It is up to each and everyone of us to use those opportunities in a constructive way and we must have the freedom to do so without harming others. I hope that the results of this conference will be that this freedom shall be sustained.