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Three Cheers for Democracy and the World Wide Web

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There are certain moments in a job that you'll always remember. One of mine was the day I logged on to the website of the organisation I was running, to find it had disappeared. In place of thousands of pages of information about poetry, education projects and events, there were offers to counter my erectile dysfunction and hair loss. They were not very poetic and nor was my response. It had a lot less characters than a haiku and, as a past participle, summed up where we were. Not, as a misreading of Larkin might suggest, safely tucked up by our mums and dads, but - well, sorry to be rude, but screwed.

It was the moment I realised (I mean really realised) that I had no more idea of the workings of this strange new world than of quantum mechanics, string theory or, indeed, the kettle. How could the website both be there, and not there? It was, it seemed, the Schrödinger's Cat of the cyberworld, though I'd never understood that either. We had, apparently, been careless. It was as if, forgetting to renew our tax disc, we'd found our little CV overtaken by Somali pirates. Still, it could have been worse. It could have been taken over by jihad-inciting Bradford youth workers or by internet-dating German cannibals. And in the end, our pirates (our "cybersquatters", to use the technical term), perhaps amused that a bunch of poets forked out for lawyers, actually gave the site back.

Cyberspace, it is clear, is not a little Trumpton toy town in which well behaved citizens with nicely clipped privet hedges post polite invitations to tea parties, old maids (in Orwell's words) bicycle to holy communion and boys scrumping apples are given a fatherly ticking off by the local bobby. It's more like Afghanistan, a great, wild, mountainous terrain, where the law of the law lord rules and where the bad guys cower in caves, plotting massacres. It is, in other words, very hard to police. And even those states that are extremely keen on the police - those states that think a police uniform is not just a great suggestion for fancy dress for a G20 demonstrator who feels the sudden urge for violence, but an outfit that makes it a duty - are finding it quite a challenge.

Even China, in fact, the best and most vigilant internet police force on the planet, has suffered a little hiccup. Its plans to transform the Great Firewall imposed on its 300 million "netizens" with new "Green Dam" filtering software have ground to a halt. Expect announcements of elections soon. Or perhaps not. It's possible the Chinese government has responded to international pressure and waves of online opposition. Possible, but not very likely.

Nearly a century after suffragettes fought for the right to vote, there's a new game of cat and mouse. One click of the mouse for freedom and there's a government (and new software) waiting to pounce. But where there's new software, there are young, tech-savvy citizens with nimble wits and nimble brains. This game will run and run.

The protesters in Iran have been crushed, for a while. Those brave bloggers whose words and pictures alerted the world to a not-quite revolution have had their voices if not silenced, then severely curtailed. But if anyone thought Ahmadinejad and his bully boy bearded clerics were going to topple at the first tweet, they've clearly forgotten that regimes borne out of blood, and calling on the death of Islington novelists, do not think power is something to be passed like a parcel. It's going to take a lot, lot more than this. But one day it will happen.

When, three months before tanks crushed students in Tiananmen Square, and eight months before a playwright addressed crowds in Prague after a wall in Germany came tumbling down, a young computer scientist made a first proposal for something called a World Wide Web, he changed the world for ever. Why is Tim Berners Lee not richer than Bill Gates? Why isn't he more famous than Michael Jackson? This is the William Caxton of our times, but not just of our times. This is the Jesus Christ. This (but Bradford youth workers, please don't bomb me) is the Mohamed.

We are unbelievably privileged to have lived through the birth of this revolutionary medium, a medium which turned the world into a village. Vicious governments will always try to hold on to power, but a modest Englishman called Tim has made their job much harder. At a time when plangent cries for another Tim have (thank goodness) faded from our TV screens, that's rather cheering to remember.