Podium: The amazing advance of knowledge

From the annual John Stuart Mill Lecture, given by the Liberal Democrat peer

THE SIZE scale of the electronic data world, its speed of growth and accuracy more than justifies strong words of warning to a naive, ill- briefed electorate. Today, 100 million people use the Internet, only a fraction of those who will surely use it in the years to come. Internet traffic doubles every 100 days.

Other growth data in the electronic era is just as startling. Computing power has doubled every 18 months for the last 30 years. In 1980 telephone calls over copper wire carried one page of information per second; now optical fibre transports 90,000 volumes in a second. The era is marked by failing prices and faster and faster data transmission.

The individual today has been heavily compromised by the ability of computerisation to bring together into one personally identified record, information about them, and to maintain and use it. Data collection is the key. Geographical distance, time and motion are diminished or extinguished by open systems computers' capacity to access and copy knowledge from electronic sources far distant. Records are now all too accessible and are modified, enlarged and used in countless ways.

In truth, we have very little experience and knowledge on how to live harmoniously in an information-led society. Our, main medium of exchange for several millennia has been money. Now we also have information. We are notgenerally equipped, as a free society should be, to judge the relative probable benign or malignant social influence an information flow may cause. With that in mind we should recall the error of software and couple that with the proliferation of false data even a single inaccurate record part can cause. Millions of people can be helped or harmed by a systems failure, too. Synthesisation of data containing one false fact can do just the same to individuals.

The citizens of a genuinely free society should be consulted as far as possible before authorising of the sharing of any personal information about them with third parties. They should have a right to ensure that any publicly owned information stored is accurate. They should have the right to redress if it is not. It should be the legitimate expectation of every citizen that information held about them by the government is protected from unauthorised external access. Data matching by government departments should be strictly controlled and monitored. The right to privacy should be universal, guaranteed by the enactment and enforcement of suitable legislation.

Article 8 of the European Convention for the protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedom gave a conditional right to privacy defined as "respect for private and family life". A joint declaration of the European Parliament, Council and Commission of 1977 recognised that the principles enshrined in that convention must be taken into consideration in European Community law. Article F of the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 included the substance of that Joint Declaration. With over a year's debate in Parliament, Britain signed that also. Privacy is a concept that we have accepted now and must begin to implement.

How then should the citizen view the State with regard to liberty in this period of change? Certainly the state owns and controls more information about us than other entity, although commercial organisations will soon catch up. Neither prospect is appealing: such targeted and precise, co- ordinated knowledge almost replaces freedom with externally induced predestination as our thoughts, actions and choices are prefigured for us.

Individual freedom has, without doubt, been placed in severe jeopardy by the electronic developments of our time and yet the knowledge-led society is one where all of us can enjoy life-long learning, developing and understanding of much that was only accessible by older mechanisms to a select few.

Michael Ignatieff puts the paradox most neatly in his explanation of what liberty should mean to individuals: "There's nothing wonderful about modernity at all. It depends what you do with it, where you go and above all whether modernisation means, at the end of the day, that this country is freer than it was before..."

I disagree with his first point. Modernisation in terms of the electronic era is wonderful in its own right; an amazing advance of human knowledge. But he's right on the renewed search for freedom within the sunrise world. It is considerably more difficult to find and to secure in the new environment, but without that certainty the last century's gains will mostly be swallowed up by that great Leviathan, the State, the commercial predators, and the press.

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