Proposed: today's youth need not fear the Internet

The Net is seen as essentially lawless. But we should not under- estimate the power of the nation state

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At the Oxford Union last week I spoke against the motion that "this House believes that the Internet heralds the demise of the nation state" and I was quite surprised to end up on the losing side - 96 members voted in favour and 69 against. Perhaps it was my want of eloquence that led to my side's defeat, or perhaps it was because many people - many young people! - are much more worried about this new medium than I had realised.

If you can judge the health of an institution by its ability to reproduce itself, then the nation state is in fine form. Out of the wreck of the Soviet Union emerged a clutch of new examples. Likewise in the case of Yugoslavia; while we may not greatly admire the political arrangements of some of the successors to the old communist federation - Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia and Bosnia - all but Bosnia fit the definition that a nation state is one where the great majority of citizens are conscious of a common identity and share the same culture.

For this reason, no doubt, the motion was expressed in soft words: "heralds" the disappearance of the nation state. Even so, the assumption is that the Internet will have a much more profound impact than earlier advances in communications. On the contrary, I see it as simply the latest of a series of significant developments, starting with the organisation of postal services in the 1840s, big improvements in newspaper production and distribution after 1860 and the introduction of the telephone towards the end of the century, followed more recently by radio transmission and television.

What is seen as worrying about the Internet is that as text, sound, pictures and moving images are transmitted from computer screen to computer screen without regard to national boundaries, a whole world is created - cyberspace. In this new territory, business transactions may go untaxed, copyright unenforced, and national systems for protecting children from pornography or the depiction of violence ignored. Because nobody controls the Internet, it is seen as essentially lawless. As the Internet grows, the coercive power of states will be weakened and their tax revenues will shrink.

This analysis, it seems to me, seriously under-estimates the power of states. Even if a business enterprise were conducted solely through the Internet, say the product were a computer game and payment were made by keying in credit card details, it would still require staff and premises. In this country, employees would be paid through the PAYE system run by the Inland Revenue. Their offices would be registered as liable for business rates. The enterprise would presumably want to benefit from the advantages that incorporation as a limited company confers. All these are points where the authorities could intervene, discover the nature of the business and tax it accordingly. The situation would be similar in every functioning nation state.

States have always faced problems in policing and taxing extraterritorial activities, whether they be the international art markets, shipping under foreign flags or foreign banking. Copyright is ignored anyway in much of the world. Pornography can be sent through the post. Despite this, states still largely succeed in imposing their will on their citizens. I cannot see what is so special about the Internet that it brings problems more formidable than any faced in the past.

A second argument made by the advocates of the motion was that the Internet, by making it easy for people to form interest groups across national boundaries, insidiously dissolves notions of a common identity and shared culture. Certainly if you open up a Web site which, for example, encourages sufferers from a particular disease to swap notes about the condition and about the course of their illness, together with news about the latest research and preventative measures and so on, a group will form from all over the world. It will be a global rather than a national community of sufferers.Yet this is an admirable feature of the Internet, precisely what it is good at facilitating. Indeed, a more widespread knowledge of best practice in relation to a particular illness may put some national health systems under pressure to improve their performance, but the state as such is not thereby weakened.

The Internet is a dumb instrument; it is there to be used. Web sites can provide support for those who believe in a United States of Europe or, equally well, urge the cause of Basque nationalism. They can be used to extend the global reach of consumer brands, or to promote a local neighbourhood. Moreover, the Internet is not a medium open only to rich individuals and wealthy companies. Anybody who possesses a computer and modem at home, and is prepared to learn some simple programming language, can create a Web site.

Nation states are neither made nor unmade by improvements in methods of communication. Particular forms of government may be weakened, which is why the very same states that jam the BBC World Service, that keep out Western newspapers and books and that tightly control ownership of fax machines, also discourage access to the Internet. But nation states emerge or disappear primarily as a result of political calculation and brute force. How else would one explain why Belgium and Greece obtained their independence in 1830 and 1832 respectively, while Ireland had to wait until 1922?

The Royal Family has a very popular Web site. Her Majesty's advisers have not seen the threat that Oxford espies. I believe that underlying the wit, insight and erudition of the supporters of the motion was an irrational fear of the future. My headline for a report of the debate would be: "Oxford suffers mild attack of technophobia".

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