No Smoking Camel

Sitting in my hotel room in sunny Riyadh, channel hopping between Arab language stations, I’m startled to see our very own town of Blackpool offering itself to the desert as the “Pearl of the English Seaside”, during the commercial break, on what looks like the Al Jazirah news channel.

Somehow footage of the English seaside appears a little incongruous when it’s squeezed in between vivid close-up film of the human carnage left behind in the ruins of Jenin. However, advertising of this kind, illustrates how the numbers game of cheap, mass communications technology of the satellite and the Internet, is increasingly unselective and frequently intrusive. After all, enough wealthy Arabs might even reject the charms of the Cote D’Azur in favour of Blackpool this summer, making the exercise worthwhile, as in much the same way, tens of thousands of gullible people fall prey to Internet advertising scams through junk e-mail each year.

Sifting through the usual unwelcome pile of pornography, loan offers and other garbage in my overloaded Hotmail inbox, I’m beginning to wonder how much further America’s constitutional right to advertise can go before people everywhere else decide they have had enough of being abused. And even if we did protest, it’s unlikely that they would take any notice.

Stuck with a cripplingly slow connection to the outside world, I’m guessing that if I divided my hotel phone bill in half, assuming 50/50 split between trash and legitimate mail, the privilege of being spammed is costing me at least £10 a day in wasted connection charges to both my hotmail account and my company email.

Of course, with Hotmail, you get Instant Messenger, which is a handy invention. Three hours ahead of the UK and I can spot my colleagues logging on to their PCs and pass notes to them as if they were on the other side of my room, so technology has some benefits, although invariably it involves an uncomfortable compromise between what you might want from the service and what you are obliged to put up with.

Even if we leave aside the distasteful side of unsolicited email, there’s very little doubt that the problem is becoming worse as the delivery mechanisms become cheaper and more sophisticated. After all, you can sell what you like, you can make any claim, any promise and as long as you’re clever there’s very little chance that you’ll be called to account by any law enforcement agency anywhere.

There’s a side to the Internet that’s starting to worry me. Any serious practical and moral debate over its future and its security is almost exclusively American and driven by that country’s laws and commercial interests. Whether you happen to be watching its progress as a European or an Arab, I don’t believe this is healthy way to manage the development of the world’s information super-highway because the very freedom that the neutrality of the Internet represents is also the weakness that threatens most to compromise our faith in its future as a global communications medium.

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