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  • Battling a Switched-Off Westminster

    The man who would be the first minister for Internet settles into his seat in the House of Commons tea-room, puts his feet up to reveal his Wallace and Gromit socks and cheerily begins to explain why the government, Westminster and Whitehall are still a long way from being the switched-on, Internet-friendly organisations which are needed in today's society.

    When Derek Wyatt, MP for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, joined Parliament at the last election he said he was expecting to find a group of MPs with an interest in the Internet. When he saw there was no such group, and existing groups relating to technology had no Internet focus and were 'entrenched' in pre-Internet thinking, he decided to set up a new body.

    Thus the All-Party Internet Group was born. The group has a Tory co-chair, Michael Fabricant, to formalise its all-party nature and its membership has swelled to 100 MPs and peers. Meetings, held every six weeks, are also open to the IT industry, which comes 'in dribs and drabs'.

    'One of the things that came out of early meetings was MPs saying Help! So we set up a training afternoon, with four online computers. That's quite hard to do here - not a single room upstairs has Internet access.'

    He says 17 group members turned up to this session, including the former Cabinet minister and SDP founder Shirley Williams, and two senior Labour politicians who he decides it would be safer not to name. 'Everyone stayed for half an hour or more. Shirley Williams wanted to look at all the Pinochet web sites'.

    Other external presentations to the group have included a session on electronic commerce.

    Wyatt says he has strong concerns about the implications of electronic commerce for the taxation system. 'What bothers me most is where you raise the corporation tax if the company is in one country, its servers are in another and it is selling to people in the UK.' His view is that corporation tax will either have to be harmonised across the EU or scrapped altogether, before it becomes entirely unworkable.

    Another concern is the telecommunications pricing system - Wyatt has recently voiced strong support for the Campaign for Unmetered Telecommunications, which is pressing for the introduction of a UK-wide, US-style local call charging system whereby one monthly charge buys unlimited use and hence Internet use is also unmetered.

    Interestingly, he says he has detected signs of support for unmetered calls from the DTI, although he says ministers still have a 'fear of BT' to be overcome. His own radical solution would be for BT to be broken up into smaller companies, including the divestiture of ownership of the 'local loop' - the final section of copper wire between people's homes and the nearest telephone exchange, which is at the heart of BT's monopoly.

    'The local loop's iniquitous, that's where all their money is. They've had privatisation for 15 years, and only 15% of the market has opened up. I'd like to see others bid for it, like Cable and Wireless or Flextech. Prices would be brought down by thousands of per cent overnight'.

    However, he is not holding his breath: 'BT would just cosy up to government and suggest something else and that would be the end of the debate'.

    Wyatt's background is in digital television, acting as a deal-maker for an early channel between Sky Television and various potential US investors. He saw the potential of the Internet early, and has his own domain name and Web site - shortly to be redesigned, he says.

    Wyatt is envious of the new Scottish Parliament, which is set to start life as one of the most wired-up in the world. 'They're all getting a laptop! The most important thing for MPs is to have a wireless office - I have a system of electronic casenotes for constituents, which I can call instantly up on my Psion 5 if I meet them in the supermarket. I update it every day, but I suspect I'm a fairly rare breed'.

    His plans for the future include helping to set up a 'World Internet Forum' - an international conference of governments to discuss electronic government issues. It would be based round a UK event, but also broadcast live on the Internet, and he is currently working on finding sponsors.

    And, of course, he is on the record as wanting to be appointed the first minister for the Internet within the Cabinet Office. His overtures have so far been rejected: Trade and Industry Secretary Stephen Byers wrote to him recently saying he did not see the need for a separate Internet minister, but Wyatt says a dedicated minister is needed to co-ordinate Internet policy across government.

    'The DTI can't handle it because it goes across government, with NHS Direct and the National Grid for Learning. Someone has got to take hold of it, and it has to be a Minister for Internet in the Cabinet Office'. The government certainly needs to boost its Internet credentials, and a minister would seem a good idea. But one suspects Wyatt may be too maverick for a Blair government. He would certainly be the first New Labour minister to wear Wallace and Gromit socks.

    Reproduced with permission from Internet Intelligence Bulletin issue 75; many thanks to Dan Jellinek. You can subscribe to it from the front page of the IIB site.

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