The internet leaks into the real world

Cyberspace reaches out to objects via drones.

The Economist reports on a bizarre idea concocted - where else - at Singularity University in Silicon Valley. The idea is to have the internet move things around. The group reasoned that whilst the rapid dissemination of information has helped many in developing countries, the rapid dissemination of objects, such as medicines, might help too:

The plan is to build a network of autonomously controlled, multi-rotor unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to carry small packages of a standardised size. Rather than having a drone carry each package directly from sender to recipient, which could involve a long journey beyond the drone’s flying range, the idea is to build a network of base stations, each no more than 10km (6 miles) from the next, with drones carrying packages between them.

In other words, it is possible for the internet to get physical. The inventors are calling their scheme "the matternet”, which shows considerable restraint, rejecting, as they must have done, "the matrix".

It's an exciting idea, but the Economist pours a bit of cold water on it:

For the delivery of drugs in developing countries, a rider on a motorbike may be a much simpler and more rugged solution. Maintaining a network of drones—a complex, immature technology—is unlikely to be easy, particularly in the remote areas that Matternet intends to target. It may be that congested city centres in rich countries will prove a more promising market.

The most contentious issue though is likely to be regulation - an unruly wild west of an internet is one thing - an unruly internet that can move things around is another.

Drone powered internet becoming reality. Photograph: Getty Images
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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.