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Don’t shoot the messenger

December 3, 2010

We have all seen movies where an unfortunate messenger is held accountable for the news they bring. Throughout history, communication services have been a sensitive area; in the 18th century, US colonists set up a rival to government controlled mail services because they suspected spying by the authorities.

Today, we have growing concerns about the internet, with ‘wikileaks’ prompting calls for increased controls.

It is essential to remember that communications lie at the heart of human progress. Without the ability to communicate, we would have remained in a primitive state. Each major advance brings with it a new set of challenges. The internet is the latest – and among the most dramatic – development in human communication. it creates a universality, speed and ease of information flows that is both energizing and threatening.

At the same time as wikileaks are causing angst to politicians, news comes of the son of a powerful police chief in China being brought to justice because of the same ‘power of the internet’. This individual killed a student and badly injured her companion while drunk driving. In the old world, there would have been a cover-up. The internet enabled exposure and growing public outrage that has called him to account.  

When people discovered speech, printing and mass mail services, they soon learnt that these new capabilities must be handled with care. There were boundaries in what should be said or written. Controls depended on a combination of laws (for example, slander and libel) and control (maintaining secrecy). But increasd communication has also always had the effect of holding people – even powerful people – to greater scrutiny and account.

All previous communication methods were to a large extent localized. The immediacy and the global penetration of the internet has changed the rules. It will require all of us to think about how, when and what we communicate. Over time, it should lead to increased global standards over legitimate use and content. But most of all, it will hopefully result in new levels of honesty and truth  – because these are fundamental to our peaceful development and to the conduct of trade and commerce.

And that, of course, is why all of us in the world of contracts and negotiation should be fasscinated about the internet and its impact on how we do our job. As with the world at large, we are at the beginnning of this particular voyage of discovery.

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