Data losses & acquisition
You may have read over the last month about a breach of data privacy involving bank customers in the Principality of Liechtenstein. A disgruntled German employee downloaded the private information of thousands of customers enjoying the secret banking protection offered by this Alpine state.

This is bad enough - a breach of this type being allowed to happen. The really unbelievable action then occurred from the national taxation offices in many European Union countries, and the USA - the tax offices bought this illegal data with a view to prosecute the tax evaders identified in the files.

If a private company were to do this, they would be sued, their officers sent to gaol, and the companies identified as unethical law breakers. I do not condone the tax evasion, but Liechtenstein charges tax on all deposits, so account holders are paying taxes, albeit often lower than their home country, but two wrongs do not make a right, and the Inland Revenue are handling stolen data - obtained and resold criminally - so what makes it right for them to pursue the account holders?

The UK Government is not whiter-than-white in this matter, as offshore accounts in the Channel Islands and Isle of Man attract the same sort of people as deposited money in Liechtenstein (although they may have trusted Liechtenstein more due to their increased independence from other states).

Liechtenstein is not new to claims of inappropriate money management, even laundering. The late newspaper tycoon - Robert Maxwell - set up a number of trust funds in Liechtenstein, possibly with ill-gotten funds. Many of the world's despots are also claimed to have money deposited in Liechtenstein bank accounts - the banking secrecy legislation protecting them from their national, and to some extent, international recovery.

The Principality has been on a list of uncooperative countries complied by the UN for many years, and so generates little compassion amongst commentators. They claim to be reforming their banking rules, but they are a very popular destination for 'money tourists' who want to squirrel their money away from their national taxation authorities. This extends to company formation - where post-box companies are set up to take advantage of the cheaper company taxation rules, and banking regulations.

There is obviously a question of ethics on both sides of this argument. The Liechtenstein authorities have been trading on their banking secrecy since World War 2, and it could be said that the secrecy has been exploited by Governments around the world since then - for both good and bad. Liechtenstein
should come more into line with the international community - but British bank accounts, for example, can only be accessed with bonefide warrants, something that I believe is also the case in both Liechtenstein and Switzerland.

My real ethical bug-bear on this matter is that the UK Government supports the Inland Revenue in it's illegal purchase, use and pursuit of 'tax evaders' bought on the lists removed from the LGT Bank. The Government are currently operating as though they are Teflon coated - they are mud slinging, and think that nothing will stick on them. Brown's cronies have lost young driver data from Northern Ireland overseas (in contravention of the Safe Harbour agreement). The Inland Revenue lost data that was sent insecurely on a CD-ROM to another Government department via the public postal system.

Two wrongs definitely do not make a right - and I am sure that any court actions taken against the names liberated from LGT will use this as a powerful defence. Unfortunately, as their names are now known to the Inland Revenue, they will be pursued to uncover other 'proof' of tax evasion so that the Inland Revenue will not have to rely on the data disk. This is all underhand, and demonstrates the double standards throughout public life.
Online ethics
The Internet has been likened to the Wild West of the USA in the 1800's. The Wild West was characterised by some people making huge fortunes, and everyone was an entrepreneur, adventurer and raconteur. The similarities are clear.

Unfortunately, where people try to make their fortune in new areas, be it physical or virtual, laws are often ignored, abused or broken. These also include the rules of moral decency and ethical behaviour.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the so-called inventor of the modern Internet said, "The web is used by humanity, and humanity has a dark and a light side. I'm an optimist — I think the light side wins. The web is supposed to be a blank sheet of paper, and you can write dark things on that paper as well as light. If you tried to control the web, you would end up with engineers deciding what the truth is, which is worse. But, if we see nasty things happening, we should try and tweak [the web]. If you look at any protocol anywhere, there are technical and social restrictions."

I would agree with this - just as in the Wild West, the Sheriff and Cavalry won through in the end. The problem is, it took time to win the war (and some would say it was never really won). The same will happen for the Internet, and we should all be aware that the Internet of tomorrow will not look like today's web, there will be increased restrictions, more security checks, etc.

Some say that will kill the Internet off, but I am more optimistic about its future - after all we all want secure browsing, more accountable information and messaging services, and more relevance to our world. I very much doubt that there are many users out there who are delighted to receive offers of Viagra, pornography sites and dubious finance deals - let alone the offers of huge wealth by providing your own bank details to help others, supposedly, embezzle money from third world countries.

If regulation provides us with a more ethical framework in which many of us work, study and play, then I am all for it.