Internet flagship steams ahead

June 1, 2001

The Oxford Internet Institute, the world's first multidisciplinary institute based in a major university, is mushrooming as quickly as the internet.

The idea was first discussed just a year ago. "We went from an idea to funding and a building and a launch extremely quickly," said Andrew Graham, master-elect of Balliol, where the institute will be housed. "We are in the process of appointing a director and prioritising our research strategy."

Education secretary David Blunkett said: "The effects of the internet are pervasive - through business, education and leisure. Britain needs a centre for top-class research on the difficult issues the internet poses in cryptography, intellectual property rights, security and so on."

Mr Graham, who advised the government on its communications white paper, said: "We intend to feed ideas into government, but pride ourselves on our independence from both government and any major company."

The institute has been funded by a £10 million donation from the Shirley Foundation and by £5 million from the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

Dame Stephanie Shirley, founder of the foundation, said: "For some time now I have been very interested in the social, ethical and other issues raised by the internet."

Dame Shirley set up the F. I. Group, an information technology services company, in 1962. She is now one of the richest women in the United Kingdom.

She is particularly interested in the ethical implications of the internet and is keen that the traditional strengths of Balliol, in areas such as moral philosophy, will be brought to bear on the internet. "I am an entrepreneur, a doer who has little time for research, and yet the ideas behind the internet and its implications fascinate me," she said. "Oxford will bring academic precision to these areas."

Steve Woolgar heads the Said Business School programme "Virtual Society?", which looks at whether fundamental shifts are taking place in the ways people behave, organise themselves and interact as a result of the new technologies. His ideas for the new institute focus on ethical issues.

He said: "The institute should play a key role in assessing how democratic the internet is, whether technology is falling into the hands of a few or fulfilling its original promise and giving more people more access to more information."

Oxford has a number of other research programmes and initiatives involving the internet, which the institute is expected to build.

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