Hard wearing

SA Mathieson talks to the new e-commerce minister Stephen Timms

I interviewed then-new e-commerce minister Stephen Timms at the Labour conference in Blackpool in 2002 – he was pretty open and very knowledgeable on IT policy, given his background. He is still the Labour MP for East Ham, having served twice as chief secretary to the Treasury.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Hard wearing” was written by SA Mathieson, for The Guardian on Thursday 3rd October 2002 01.01 UTC

Unlike his predecessor, the new e-commerce minister Stephen Timms does not face much of a learning curve to fit into his new role.

Timms worked for IT analyst Ovum and consultancy firm Logica for a total of 15 years, before becoming an MP. He wrote that broadband was “no longer a pipe-dream” – back in 1987.

But away from the discussions on broadband, he points out that there are plenty of other issues that need his attention. “There are genuine security concerns which need to be addressed,” he says, referring to the strengthening of laws threatening online privacy. “But the economic imperative is to promote the take-up of new technology, not hamper it.”

Timms says that civil servants in the Department of Trade and Industry and the Home Office are thrashing out the controversial proposals to allow more than 1,000 state-sector bodies access to traffic data, such as email headers and phone bills. These plans were withdrawn for reworking by the home secretary, David Blunkett, earlier this year, following an outcry. “I’m confident we’ll find a way through,” says Timms.

He is similarly confident of a resolution to the drawn-out discussions on an internet service provider (ISP) code of conduct, which will set how long ISPs keep your email headers and website logs.

Protecting IT from potentially over-tight surveillance is part of his job: appointed a minister in May, he says Tony Blair told him to ensure e-commerce realises its economic potential.

However, Timms is also interested in its social potential. In a section on his web-site headed Christian Socialism, he says that politics can learn from Christianity and other faiths. And this goes for IT, too. “There are some interesting crossovers,” he says, in the way that technology firms are starting to consider the greater good.

He mentions a training project for the disadvantaged in east London, and the annual Byte Night event, where he recently joined 130 other industry figures, sleeping rough to raise money for charity.

Timms is also involved in work by the Department for International Development, which aims to transfer technology to the developing world, particularly Africa. With this, morality and economic benefit coincide, he reckons.

“There’s been a huge surge in employment in the IT industry in Bangalore,” he says of India’s technology city, including work outsourced from the UK. “We’re also in a position where we have the smallest number of unemployed people in the UK for 27 years. It’s in our interests to have strong trading partners. There’s clearly anxiety about jobs going overseas, but new jobs and opportunities will be created.”

To return to broadband, Timms is particularly interested in the model of mesh wireless, where users become part of the network, extending its reach further than a single base sta tion could manage. “You would obviously need somewhere as a hub for the backhaul with a high capacity,” he says, reverting to the techno-speak of his former employment.

But it’s a good illustration of the new e-commerce minister’s interest in community spirit with a technological twist.

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