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Bill Thompson,

Net Activist | 13 Jun 2006

The whole media industry of today is self-obsessed. Mainstream media is in a crisis around the world. People don’t trust it as they used to. There are many examples of corrupt practices, journalists lying, media stories going wrong. Interesting media blogging is just a symptom of this crisis in mainstream media. To some extent, it depends on the individual journalists, individual organisations to find out ways to engage with bloggers. But it requires the will power of the journalist or the publication to make a difference. And there may be some resistance to that as well.

New media pioneer Bill Thompson has been working in, on and around the Internet since 1984. He currently has a weekly column on the BBC WebWise site, and contributes to other publications – both on and off-line – including The Guardian, The Register and The New Statesman. His ‘billblog’ appears weekly on BBC News Online in the technology news section.

A former programmer, Thompson was a senior manager for training company The Instruction Set before moving to PIPEX, Britain’s first commercial Internet service provider, in 1993. At PIPEX he set up the training division before becoming the company’s Internet ambassador.

In 1995 he established Guardian newspaper’s New Media Lab and was head of new media during 1996, before leaving to pursue a freelance career.

He was also an advisor to the Labour Party on its Internet policy and helped to write ‘Communicating Britain’s Future’ in 1995. He was technical director of Nexus, the virtual think tank, and hosted policy debates for the Prime Minister’s Office, the Arts Marketing Association and the Times Higher Education Supplement.

In this freewheeling conversation with exchange4media’s Asit Ranjan Mishra, the Net guru shares his thoughts about the impact of the Internet on our lives, the advantages and perils of blogging and some very strong comments on Google and the like.

Q. By your own admission, you have been online since 1984. How has it impacted your offline life? Has it made it easier or more complicated?

Having access to the Internet has shaped my life because I was online very early in the university in 1984. I had access to the Internet to send e-mails. And in early 90s, when I was working for an Internet company, I was always able to get online. And I made choices in my life according to that. I was living in Cambridge in England and I never missed London, there was never any need because I could work remotely.

Q. You are somebody who has seen the Internet growing since its infancy to what it is today. How do you see the growth of the Internet?

I think not only have I have seen it, I was lucky enough in developing what was happening in the world wide web. In that way, I was one of the architects of this beautiful building, with great curves and fantastic materials, and when a bunch of boring accountants moved in, they did not appreciate it. I am not interested in the commercial aspect of the Internet. I am more interested in the technology and the way it can develop and change people’s lives. It has not done enough yet.

Q. But in general, do you think technology has made our lives easier or more complicated?

Well, there have to be separate things. It could be easier or more complicated. I would say I could cope with more complications because of technology. My life has not been made easier, it has been made richer. I can have a little online chat with my daughter who is back in Cambridge by using the wireless net in the hotel here in India. Once upon a time, if you came to visit from England to Delhi, if you are lucky you could make a phone call or send some cards. Now, I can chat with my friends back in England. So, I don’t think it’s that simplistic to say whether technology has made life easy or complicated. It’s different. We can do different things.

Q. You have written somewhere that your daughter built her first website at the age of four. How has Internet affected a child’s life, especially in the West? Don’t you think they are exposed to a medium too early, which is quite wild and uncontrolled?

You are right, the web is wild and uncontrolled. There is a lot of stuff on the web that I would not like my son or daughter to view. I talk with them about it, they are aware of it. But I don’t believe in limiting what they can see, rather I leave it to the law and technology. So, what you want is sensible behaviour on part of the children as well as parents. Parents need to teach them about the dangers, help them tackle it and then give them the freedom that they deserve.

As far as impact on their lives is concerned, they have grown up with a privileged Western background. They have always been networked in their lives, they have never known any other world. And for them, technology and the Internet is not something exceptional, it’s not even particularly interesting. Because they do read books, they go out with their friends, they are not always glued to the screen. They are balanced individuals. So, technology has not distorted their world. It has made some things easier, some things complicated. I think if technology is used properly, our kids can grow up with it and make good use of it.

Q. When most of human life and endeavour is going online, do you think the concept of personal privacy is getting lost somewhere?

That’s a very good question. I think, yes, so much information about us goes online. I spent this morning uploading my photographs during my visit to India on Flickr where anybody can see it. I have posted my experience in India on my blog entries. That information is now available to anyone who wants to know more about my personal life. And already in the US, many young people are having problems where they have been restricted from taking admission in certain universities for what they had written in their weblogs about themselves, that they have taken drugs and things like that. So, it’s true that we are now more exposed than ever before. But this is one side and I think that new community standards will evolve. People will be more cautious. Like when I write about my children and wife, I try not to give too much detail about their personal lives. We need the lawmakers to bring in legislation, which gives us control over the information and law that protects our privacy.

Q. So, you are in favour of some sort of control being imposed on the Internet?

Oh yes, the Internet has never been unregulated. And technical standards are very rigid. Laws have always been applied to the Internet. Even in the UK, we have Internet laws against racial hatred, on copyright issues, etc.

Q. But there is another school of thought that says that in the name of regulation, governments try to curb the freedom of individuals, like what happens in China.

You can’t argue that the Internet should be outside legislation, you can’t argue that the Internet is special. And even if you try to argue that way that Internet is out of the world, like it happened in the US, you will lose the battle and the government will do away with law. Ideally, what we need to do is to engage with politics. Take the case of China. It is an autonomous state. It is recognised by the UN, WTO. It is a legitimate state even if we do not agree with it. Some of their laws seem to contradict international treaties like freedom of speech and freedom of expression. It should be criticised for that and pressure should be put on it to change that law. But writing software to break the Internet laws in China and encouraging people to do that and getting them to jail is not fair.

Q. You are also one of those few intellectuals who support the entry of Google in China, accepting its censors. Comment.

Yes, I believe in constructive engagement. I think Google being in China is doing it the best way they can. I think they have some influence in China because they are working with the government. But, they are making the sort of concession that Yahoo made. If over a period of time they get along with the regime, then you may say I am wrong. But there are certain times when you want to change things, engagement is the right way to do it. There are other times, like in South Africa, where sanctions, oppositions, and fighting the government is the right way to do it. They are different circumstances.

Q. You are in favour of political engagement, but in case of America, where the government is pressurising Google to share secret information, how do you see that then?

I think America is a decaying democracy in which the constitution is not respected by the President. The government in that country does not respect the freedom of its citizens anymore. It want to use the web in its long war – the war against terror. I think we should oppose it too, but again it should be done through engagement, by drawing attention to the issue.

Q. With the rise of the Internet, a new activist has arrived – the Net activist, you are one such activist. How effective and impactful will he be? Can we see a Mahatma Gandhi or a Martin Luther King from these Net activists?

Not for a while. The Net activist at this moment is not very effective, partly because in most countries, the number of people who have access to the Internet is very limited. And in a way in every country, apart from perhaps the US, the number of politicians and decision makers who have the understanding of the Internet is phenomenally limited. Internet has to have reach enough people, only then will it have some impact. Like John Kerry had massive support among Internet communities in the last Presidential elections in the US, but he lost the election because people who did not have the Internet did not vote for him. So, I think we have not reached that threshold where the Internet could have an impact on public life, but might happen in the future.

Q. With bloggers gaining more and more importance, don’t you think maintaining credibility in the blogosphere is a bigger issue now?

I think with bloggers it is not so much that you want to guarantee somebody’s credibility. It is better to encourage people to be more critical when you read someone’s blog, to ask the question how do I believe him. Blogs could be the starting point for any information or research. But over time, some bloggers establish reputation and because they have a reputation to lose you trust them to make their best effort to tell the truth.

Q. In India, media blogs are gaining more prominence nowadays. Is it a global phenomenon? And secondly, can bloggers be the watchdogs of the so-called mainstream media?

The whole media industry of today is self-obsessed. Mainstream media is in a crisis around the world. People don’t trust it as they used to. There are many examples of corrupt practices, journalists lying, media stories going wrong. Interesting media blogging is just a symptom of this crisis in mainstream media. To some extent, it depends on the individual journalists, individual organisations to find out ways to engage with bloggers. I personally search on the blog search engine Technorati what people are saying about me and my writings. If they say something critical, I comment on those blogs. I try to engage myself with them. I think that has made me a better journalist. I pay more attention to checking facts, to be consistent with what I am writing about. So, I think it can make a difference. But it requires the will power of the journalist or the publication to make a difference. And there may be some resistance to that as well.

Q. Do you think blogging will remain a hobby kind of thing or you think bloggers at some stage will get serious about monitising their content?

I don’t think you should think blogging as just one thing. Blogging is a technology, it’s a new way of publishing. Just as people use print publishing for lots and lots of different things, similarly people will use blogging for lots and lots of different things, some will use it to make money, some will use it as personal journals. I don’t think we can generalise and I don’t think it is an issue. The danger comes when bloggers take money, in a way which is not transparent, to influence people.

Q. And how do you see in this context corporates starting their own blogs to influence consumers and beneficiaries?

This entire thing is what is apparently being done and the companies who do it do not understand what they are doing. A few are doing a good job when they appoint a dedicated individual in the company and let him do whatever he wishes to do. Robert Scobie of Microsoft is a good example. It is an official blog, so he knows things that he should speak about and things he should not. It is not written by the PR department of the company.

Q. All the recent developments in the Internet space – that Google is planning to take on Microsoft with an alternative to MS Office, talks that Microsoft and Yahoo are coming together to fight Google? How do you see all these developments? Where are we heading?

Over the next 10 years, the centre of attention when it comes to developing software and hardware is going to shift from the US to countries like India and China. There are enough technical abilities, enough clever people in these countries, certainly in India, where there is enough interest on the parts of the government in promoting entrepreneurship. You will start to see ideal things coming out from these places, which is unlikely to come from the US, and it will be better and more interesting and will spread very quickly. I am looking to the end of US domination in the field of software and the Internet. The key innovations in the field of next generation computing will come from somewhere apart from MIT or Stanford. And then the world will start to shift.

Q. But can these new ideas really take on established brands like Yahoo and Google?

Of course. Now, Google is in fact rubbish.

Q. Why?

Google, as compared to other search engines of the day, looks like a word in a document. It does not understand its meaning. When you search a word like tea, it does not know whether you are looking for tea the drink, tea the plant or whatever. Somebody soon has to solve the problem of symantic indexing. And that could now happen in Bangalore or Beijing.

Q. Do you think it is easier to build a brand on the Internet than in the real physical world?

It is easy to reach a market online, whereas in the real world, you are limited by geographical factors, distribution hassles, etc. So, more than building a brand, I would say it is easier to reach a market online. If you can reach a market, then you certainly can build a brand.

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