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Roger Clarke's ELSIC - Current Issues

Economic, Legal and Social Implications of I.T.
Current Issues

Roger Clarke

Version of 9 August 1999

© Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, 1999

These Notes were prepared for presentation to ANU DCS's comp1800 on Friday 9 August 1999. They are based on a presentation to the Canberra Branch of the Australian Computer Society on 21 July 1999

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Some years ago, I took over the chairmanship of a segment of the Australian Computer Society that was called the 'Social Implications Committee'. I felt that this was just too 'wet' a title to be taken seriously, and too narrow a scope to be useful to anyone. I negotiated with the Society to change it to the Economic, Legal and Social Implications Committee. I explained the rationale underlying the change in an 'Opinion Piece' in a major journal (Clarke 1988).

I use the term 'information technology' (I.T.) to refer to the combination of computing, communications and robotics. The promise that I.T. seemed to offer 30 years ago is being fulfilled. And with that promise come a range of threats, some of which have very serious implications for 'society as we know it'. Unfortunately, few of these implications seem to be appreciated by technologists, at least not to the point where they are doing anything about it.

These Notes provide an overview of some current issues in the economic, legal and social implications of I.T., and pointers to further resources. In order to provide some degree of structure, the following headings are used:

Public Safety

A variety of risks arise that directly affect people's physical safety. Obvious examples are computers and software that:

Major area of discussion in the software engineering literature are:

The bitterly disappointing fact is, that the quality of software is no better now than it was 30 years ago. Computer scientists keep inventing improvements; and more and more complex and powerful systems are designed and implemented; but they continue to over-run budgets and schedules, and continue to deliver bug-ridden products.

During the last few years of the century, the consultant-driven near-hysteria associated with Y2K has at least brought some focus to bear on quality issues. There will be many date- and time-related events during the next 50 years that are of the same general nature as the {19}99 to {20}00 changeover. There will also be many events that arise as a result of other forms of the primary inadequacy that underpins Y2K problems,i.e. mis-handled field-overflow.

A critical resource in relation to priblems in this area is the newsgroup Risks Forum, and the associated archive, Risks Digest.

In relation to security risks, a major source is AusCERT.

For an investigation of the lessons that are embedded in Asimov's 'Laws of Robotics', fiction, see an article I published a few years back in IEEE Computer.

A further area of risk is criminal acts that involves use of the Internet, or are even performed over the Internet. Categories of crime on the Internet include the following:

Here is a paper about the difficulties confronting law enforcement agencies when they try to investigate crime over the Internet.

Here is some further information on public safety matters.

Quality of Life

There is a wide variety of impacts of I.T. on the way we live. The following clusters need to be considered.

* The Workplace

Some positives include: 'death of the tyrrany of distance' / equitable information accessibility for businesses and employees; and a pleasant and clean working environment.

Some negatives are: the de-socialising effect of 'workstations'; occupational health and safety (RSI, bad backs, too little exercise, eye-strain, radiation); activity surveillance (e.g. keystroke-rate monitoring); and on-demand workers who never leave the workplace.

* The Home

Some positives include: 'death of the tyrrany of distance' / equitable information accessibility for citizens and consumers; and 24/7 service.

Some negatives are: the de-socialisating effect of 'playstations'; playstation health and safety; child predators contacting children over the net; and 'censored' materials readily available on the net (in particular, pornography, racial vilification, incitement to violence, and instruction in violence).

* Communities

New forms of community are enabled by I.T. For example, the diaspora of speakers of threatened languages (e.g. Welsh and other Celtic languages) can discover one another, achieve critical mass, and ensure survival of their written languages, and - as Internet-based telephony arrives - also their spoken tongues).

Existing communities are able to support one another through electronic bulletin-boards, e-lists for asyncronous communications within interest groups, and - soon - voting on local issues.

It's also a resource for bomb-recipes, and a channel for rumour-mongering. Here's a catalogue of dysfunctional behaviour on the Internet.

* Public Places

Since the 1950-70s, shops in the main streets of towns and suburbs have been under threat by shopping centres / malls. Currently, remote service locations for government departments and banks are closing in droves, driven by the dominance of rationalist economics over social equity, but enabled by I.T. Libraries, schools and universities are under threat.

Where will people meet in the flesh, in order to sustain a healthy intersection between the real and virtual worlds?

* Public Resources

Currently, dramatic change in the concept and opeation of libraries is occurring as a result of I.T.

Education & Training is also undergoing dramatic change, as the 'distance education' model quickly takes over from the traditional 'campus-based' model.

Universities will quickly convert to being managers of brand-names, and will increasingly buy in specialist courses from specialist providers (e.g. even in the slowly-adapting A.N.U., actuarial studies courses are bought in from elsewhere, and external teachers are used extensively in the MBA).

* People with Disabilities

Badly designed I.T. reinforces the barriers confronting the blind, deaf, wheelchair-bound, bed-bound, etc.

Well-designed I.T. assists, empowers and breaks down the barriers confronting the blind, deaf, wheelchair-bound, bed-bound, etc.

* Employment Levels / Distribution of Income

Productivity continues to gallop ahead. It's becoming increasingly difficult for wealthy countries to consume all that they produce. There's therefore a decreased demand for labour. That would be fine, if people could choose how much they work, and select a mix between pleasure with income that suited their perferences at the time.

Unfortunately, we're saddled with a once-rational linkage between the work a person performs and the income they earn. If significantly less than 100% of the 'bread-winners' can be employed, a significant percentage of the population will have no income.

Put another way, we need to stop thinking 'welfare' and start thinking 'transfer payments'. In particular, we need to declare a better-than-subsistence-level income as being independent of work, such that employers pay their employees and (their increasingly large numbers of) contractors the extra income due in return for their efforts.

* National Sovereignty

Some positives include: projection by individual countries to the world-at-large; overcoming of the biased reporting of western-dominated news media; and a key communications resource for patriots fighting against a despotic government.

Some negatives are: domination of the infrastructure and the content by the english language, and primarily by Americans, threatens national integrity; attempts by some governments (mainly the U.S.A.), to impose their laws outside their geographical jurisdiction; and a key communications resource by dissidents intent on undermining the elected government.


Here are some general claims that people make about essential personal freedoms in a democracy:

I argued in 1997 that the advent of the public Internet since the mid-1990s has given rise to some additional demands:

Here are some particular topics of concern.

* Right of Access to Information

In order to ensure that people have access to information, many factors (often referred to as 'information policy' or 'information management' issues) need to be addressed, including:

Meanwhile there are some outright threats to the level of access to information that we already enjoy, as public lending libraries shrink, and copyright owners lobby for greater legal protection, structure their relationships with readers in terms of contract law rather than copyright law, and apply technology to prevent non-payers from accessing their content (Clarke & Dempsey 1999, Clarke 1999).

* Information Infrastructure

A first requirement is that everyone have the ability to gain access to the information infrastructure. This requirement is far from being satisfied. We'll leave aside the question of the vast numbers of Asians and Africans that have never even seen a telephone, far less made a telephone call.

In Australia, people east of Wagga Wagga can't get better than 2400 bps; 64-bit ISDN is widely available but completely unaffordable; and the 2 million well-off people in Sydney and Melbourne who have cable past their front-door are still having it marketed to them just as a delivery vehicle for TV.

A second serious concern is the efforts of law enforcement and national security agencies to monitor traffic and content. This extends, in the case of the Cold War warriors still entrenched in the U.S. National Security Agency to the fantasy-world of banning public use of strong cryptography. The campaign to ensure that Australian security agencies don't follow the American line is documented by Electronic Frontiers Australia.

The efforts of national security agencies extend to the engineering of information infrastructure to support surveillance. This has not been all that successful to date in relation to the Internet, but very successful in the case of the public switched telephone network (PSTN), cellular telephones and cable, all of which underpin Internet usage. See my paper on person-location and person-tracking.

A further issue is the substantial set of constraints on the use of the information infrastructure. There is a strong tendency for governments and corporations to try to exercise power by imposing requirements on ISPs, such as:

* Consumer Aspects

Thanks to the Internet, combined with widely dispersed access points (workstations, playstations, public kiosks, Internet cafes, PDAs coupled with GSM cell-phones, etc.), consumers have access to suppliers that they couldn't find before. (The concept of 'market reach' used to be applied primarily to sellers; but it's now applicable to consumers as well).

Consumers also have access to far more information than before, and are in a better position to compare prices (e.g. e-compare), and terms and conditions. So in some senses at least, I.T. has twisted power away from producers towards consumers.

Consumers are also subject to a range of threats from producers and marketers. Technology-based consumer transactions (such as Interactive Voice Response - IVR) can be used a substitute for human interaction. Moreover, anyone without access to appropriate technology or educational opportunities is disadvantaged. Another concern is that consumer rights may be undermined, because law is constrained to geographical jurisdictions, and a great deal of Internet commerce is conducted across national boundaries. Here are some materials concerning current problems in the area of business-with-consumer transactions.

Direct marketers developed predatory, mass communications, consumer manipulation techniques in the mail and telephone selling. They've carried these techniques and attitudes across to their operations on the Internet. They're acting as though people's e-mailboxes were there for the convenience of marketers, so that they can push ads at consumers, and even accidentally deny service to people, by using the push-technology of email to deliver spam.

Beyond that, marketeing interests are continuing their attempts to subvert the essentially pull-technology of the Web in order to achieve their aims of pushing offers at consumers, e.g. through banner advertising, 'in-your-face' technologies like Shockwave, and intrusive technologies like Java and CaptiveX.

They are also trying to harness invasive technology such as cookies, in order to develop consumer profiles, which can then be used to customise marketers' dealings with individual consumers - which is otherwise known as consumer manipulation.

Here is a comprehensive review of direct marketing.

* Citizen Aspects

Governments are increasingly focussing on electronic services delivery (ESD) to the public. This offers considerable benefits to citizens, in that more information is available, more conveniently and cheaply, and during all hours of the day, night and weekend.

There are downsides as well, however. There is a strong probability that governments will take the opportunity to reduce costs by reducing counter and telephone services still further (and have already done so in the case of the primary Commonwealth government service-delivery organisation, Centrelink). ESD also usually has the effect of transferring costs from the government agency to the individual, e.g. by encouraging data capture by people rather than staff, and forcing print-on-demand at the citizen's own printer, hence implementing the 'user pays' principle.

There is also a tendency among government agencies to expect people to identify themselves when dealing with agencies through electronic channels. This is achieved (imperfectly) through IP-addresses and email-addresses, but they are planning to demand digital signatures in order to identify and authenticate the party. In respect of transactions that by their nature need to be identified, this may be quite reasonable; but where it involves enquiries, which have hitherto been largely anonymous, it's a quite sinister development.

* Dataveillance and Privacy

Data surveillance, usefully abbreviated to 'dataveillance', is the monitoring of people and their behaviour not directly, but through their data. It's a direct threat to privacy, which is the interest that individuals have in sustaining a private space into which other people and organisations don't intrude.

During the last 40 years, I.T. has been providing organisations with the means to perform quite dramatic attacks on privacy. Here is an introduction to dataveillance and privacy, here is a resource page, and here is a thematic index of materials on this vital topic.

* Internet Privacy

With the explosion of the Internet have come a new set of privacy invasions. These include:

Here is an article in which this is dealt with at length.

It should be noted, however, that there are some challenges confronting would-be invaders of people's Internet privacy, including law enforcement agencies, and gambling regulators.

* Identified, Anonymous, Pseudonymous Transactions

Transactions between individuals and organisations sometimes need to include identification of one or both parties. There are many circumstances, however, in which anonymity is quite feasible. There is also the option of using a pseudonym, and establishing protections against casual linkage between the pseudonym and the person behind it. Here is a paper that explains the concept of human identification, here is a paper that outlines the concepts of anonymity and pseudonymity, here is material that analyses the concepts more formally, and here is a further paper that examines the spectrum of alternative approaches.

Many organisations blithely assume that identification is the norm, even where it never has been in the past. Moreover, there is a reluctance to implement pseudonymity, and the privacy-sympathetic technology that it represents. As a result, there is a strong tendency at present for independent technologists to produce anonymity technologies, which are privacy-enhancing but which can reduce the accountability that is often an important incentive for socially constructive behaviour.

Here is a paper that identifies relevant technologies, and here is a set of resources relating to anonymity and pseudonymity tools.

* Location and Tracking

I.T. developments of the last few decades have dramatically increased the scope for origanisations to discover the location of a person, to track their location over time, and even to do so in real time. Relevant technologies include:

Here is a paper that examines person-location and person-tracking in much greater detail.

Some Policy Conclusions

I.T.'s downside risks to society are enormous. We need to be direct and aggressive in order to harness technology to our needs, rather than submitting ourselves to technology.

Here are a couple of proposals about what we should be doing, not just in relation to the first year of the new millenium, but in relation to the century as a whole:

C2K Policy Imperative No. 1:

C2K Policy Imperative No. 2:


If society is to survive the onslaught of I.T., people will need to rapidly mature in their understanding of it, their appreciation of its implications, and their preparedness to declare what they do and do not want from I.T. For several centuries, literacy referred to 'reading, writing and 'rithmetic'. We have to upgrade that concept to address the needs of the new era. But in addition to personal skills, we need constructive action by groups of people, and maturation of society as a whole.

Many new communities have already arisen as a result of communications facilitated by the Internet. Many existing communities have also harnessed the Internet to their needs. The word 'culture' refers to relatively stable and cohesive sets of behaviours exhibited by groups of people. Hence the term 'cyberculture' refers to those relatively stable and cohesive sets of behaviours that are exhibited by groups of people who interact wholly or primarily over the Internet. Physical meeting-places like halls and clubs are less important than virtual meeting-spaces facilitated by the information infrastructure. The physical 'commons' (shared areas where people of the village could graze their cattle) have been generalised to an 'information commons' (shared electronic resources).

The primary reference on the notion of 'virtual community' is still Howard Rheingold's book of that name. See also my collection of papers on the topic.

Here are a couple of assertions about cyberculture:


15 years ago, when I wrote my original paper on Economic, Legal and Social Implications of I.T., I said "All researchers and professionals must regard the implications of their work as part and parcel of their research in and application of IT. Consideration of implications needs to be integrated, not segregated".

That's as important a statement today as it was then. But it now seems pathetically unambitious. We must demand no less than that technologists devise technologies that have regard to people's needs and concerns, and discard harmful information technologies. In short we must deny the technological imperative, and choose our future rather than letting it happen.

Some Further Resources

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Created: 26 July 1999 - Last Amended: 9 August 1999 by Roger Clarke - Site Last Verified: 15 February 2009
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