Peter Bazalgette’s apologia for dangerous new internet tracking technologies fails to realise that, without privacy protection, our economy will suffer
What did you do when last on the net? Perhaps you emailed a client a confidential quote? Or contributed pseudonymously on a web forum? Or, more in keeping with the times, anonymously uploaded to a whistle-blowing website copies of the $450,000 bill run up by executives of AIG? If you did, Peter Bazalgette isn’t interested. He sees the internet as a giant shopping mall, which is a shame. Yes, the net has revolutionised commerce over the last decade. But daily communications, and even civic engagement, all now take place online. What we do over our internet connections reveals more about us than any other activity.
Mistaking the biggest innovation in communications technology since the Gutenburg press for a high street shopping parade is just the first error in Bazalgette’s ill-informed apologia for Phorm—the dangerous new behavioural tracking technology currently being trialled by the UK’s biggest internet service provider (ISP), BT. Much of what Bazalgette writes about the advertising industry—that it currently funds much media production and may fund more, that it aspires to engage consumers using increasingly integrated and fine-grained targeting techniques—represents an uncomfortable reality that most normal people have grudgingly learnt to live with. It may come as a surprise to Bazalgette to find out that, as the head of one of the privacy campaigns he namechecks, the Open Rights Group, I believe that people should be free to choose what relationships they establish with media outlets or corporate brands. And this should include how much they wish to reveal about their everyday lives.
And this is just the point. Phorm subverts these crucial, commercial relationships between businesses and their customers. It works by dialling directly into your ISP’s network, intercepting communications between you and the websites you visit, to ascertain what sort of things you are looking at. It’s as if the postman were being paid to open every letter he delivered to you, just in order to send you a better class of junk mail.
Although Phorm does have some privacy enhancing features—enhancing, not guaranteeing—it actually presents a threat to the growth in online commerce. If BT is allowed to continue in its deployment, the current online content providers so lauded by Bazalgette, from the Big Brother website, to Hulu, to the floundering music industry, will be at a potentially fatal disadvantage to ISPs when it comes to attracting advertising. Instead, these companies will have to pay their dues to BT. As a result, Bazzalgette is wrong on his central argument, that without companies like Phorm much of the “content” industries on the internet will go bust.
I say “If BT is allowed to continue,” because, as it turns out, such practice is illegal. As has been clear for some time to internet lawyers, Phorm cannot comply with the law that regulates interception of communications in the UK, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA). RIPA dictates that the consent of website owners like Hulu, as well as web users, must be sought before an interception can take place. Luckily for BT, and Phorm, no official body appears to exist to enforce this law. The information commissioner’s office have disowned responsibility, the City of London police have dismissed a case brought by one angry customer as “too complex,” and the promisingly-titled Interception of Communications Commissioner apparently only regulates interception of communications by the government. As a result, it has become clear that there is actually no protection for UK citizens from those who wish to illegally intercept their private communications for financial gain.
Bazalgette argues that the government need to fill the policy vacuum that exists around privacy and the online economy. In this respect, I couldn’t agree with him more. But neither of us should hold our breath. The inadequate broadband infrastructure he refers to in his opening paragraphs is currently of great concern to the government, and they are looking to private sector companies like BT to invest. Blind eyes could well be turned to legislative niceties in order to allow this investment to take place, for instance by helping BT get more advertising revenue to shore up its bottom line. In the end, it might not be Bazalgette’s content industries, but big infrastructure companies, who get the lion’s share of revenue from the online advertising revolution.
We—all of us, from shoppers to shops, whistle-blowers to boardroom bosses—need digital privacy. Both our society and our economy depend on it. This is especially true for the media businesses Bazalgette is trying to protect. And as customers and citizens, we may choose to disclose some things about our habits to advertisers, either for our own benefit or for the benefit of the online economy. But, until we do, those communications should remain as private as a letter in the post.