[Originally published in the Scotsman on 28 February 1997. These were the early days of the web, but already some hysteria was building up around online pornography and neo-nazi nastiness. That, I hope, should explain the focus of the piece and the standfirst (which I didn't write).]
Keith Mitchell claims that the internet is growing up and has reached a stage where regulation is required. Pornography is his business. He keeps it off our screens. Neil McIntosh on the Internet’s silent weapon
SITTING at a low table in an Edinburgh cafe, the thirtysomething man with a big mop of greying hair is dabbing at the keyboard of his electronic personal organiser but staring straight ahead. On his face
he has a slightly pained expression, which quivers into a forced smile at the exhortations of the nearby photographer.
This man is Keith Mitchell, and although he is still largely unknown outside the European Internet industry, he is one of its most influential figures. And while he might not be too good at posing for
pictures, everyone is going to be seeing – and hearing – a lot more of the unassuming Scot, for he is chairman of the London Internet Exchange, known as Linx; an organisation which has, until recently,
managed to appear as a harmless gang of geeks, even if the members are the chiefs of Britain’s 30 largest Internet service providers – the people who connect domestic and business users to cyberspace.
Founded in 1994, Linx’s original aim was highly technical and of little or no interest to the non-nerd public. It was set up to create and manage a giant Internet junction on the neutral ground of London’s hi-tech Telehouse office block, providing connections between the UK’s biggest Internet players and other big firms abroad.
But last July, Linx’s technical assets had the addition of a human one – Mitchell. And suddenly, from being an organisation with few policies other than those which regulated its membership, Linx has turned in to a political organisation – and one in which many Internet users are beginning to take more of an interest. Since being appointed last summer, Mitchell has been busy lobbying decision-makers and achieving one of Linx’s original aims – to carry forward the Internet torch in Europe much further than it ever seemed possible.
He insists that his broad remit is easy to justify. “I firmly believe that the technical, commercial and political aspects of this industry have no clear dividing line,” he says. “The primary role of Linx is
technical, but because we have that focus of 30 people round a table and actually agreeing with each other occasionally, then when things are important enough they will act on these things.”
The important issue of the moment is, of course, that of unsuitable and illegal material on the
Internet – with the row centring on pornography, neo-Nazi texts and racist sites. Mitchell and Linx
have played a key role in talking with police and the regulatory authorities to attempt to solve the
problem. But much of his task, he says, has been to educate, because many of the people who make
calls for action on the Internet, and who could have a major say in deciding how it is regulated,
don’t know how it works.
“I’m dealing with Oftel (the telecommunications watchdog) quite frequently. I had to buy a fax
machine especially to deal with them. They were the first people I dealt with who didn’t use e-mail.
The second were the European Commission. So it is a learning exercise. But both are trying to make
too big decisions, without knowing what they are dealing with.
“There are a lot of misconceptions. But our policy of education has had some successes. The
Metropolitan Police, who wrote that ill-advised and widely distributed letter last year about banning newsgroups [because they largely mistakenly feared they might contain illegal pornography] have pulled back from that position because of the industry’s successful programme of self-regulation. From that point of view, we’ve been rather successful.”
Now Mitchell is involved in initiatives such as Internet Watch, which encourages Internet users
to report illegal material on the Internet, using a free hotline. Such a move manages to avoid
having specific laws for the Internet which, he says, “would be a mistake”. In fact, he claims, the
Internet Watch scheme, which has now spread to Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium, has
proved that the pornography problem on the Internet is smaller than was first thought.
“In the first month of operation, there were only 15 complaints passed on to the police,” he says.
“And the following month we had about double that. But when you consider the amount of fuss
created about this problem, that is not actually a lot. And that is why it is good that the industry
has done something itself, and not let the police do something drastic.
“We are going through a phase where the Internet is growing up – from being very entrepreneurial, and expanding to the stage where it has reached a size where some kind of regulation is required. We have to make the right decisions. My view is that while I might be doing a lot of politicking now, my background is in engineering, and I believe in a structured solution to these things.”
And that makes an interesting parallel. For the geeks who make up the UK’s fledgling Internet industry are being forced to emerge into the bright light of publicity for the first time, to fight off what they say is an ill-conceived attempt at a legal clampdown with a mix of self-regulation and evangelising.
And the man they have preaching their sermon is truly one of their own; the hugely successful but
low-profile Scots engineer who is still hoping, in the true Internet spirit, that logic and co-operation will win the day.