Thursday, July 9, 2009

The web needs a highway code

Following the BT/Phorm saga, the government must clear up confusion over consumer protection and monitoring software

BT's announcement that it is dropping its involvement with Phorm "for the moment" is unsurprising. The telecoms giant has a high level of trust among consumers, and pushing forward with the controversial web monitoring and profiling system would have been a very dangerous move for the company. It might have destroyed BT customers' trust in the company had they felt that their web traffic was being intercepted in a way they did not understand. Even with reassurance that there would be an "opt-in" system, Phorm's plans did not take account of public worry of just what this would mean in reality.

The government's role in the affair has been dubious. It has never taken responsibility for ensuring that all players were clear about what protection consumers could expect from the law under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and whether it was enforceable over interceptions of the BT/Phorm kind. Despite constant questioning, the government would only say that "it was a matter for the courts" to decide. The Home Office may have its own use for deep packet inspection for intercepting web traffic, but it is mistaken if it thinks ambiguity in the commercial sector would help the technology develop unhindered.

One of the main opponents of the Phorm-type of monitoring is the web's inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, who branded it as "snooping". He has been appointed as a special adviser to the government. Leaving the government is Lord Carter, the erstwhile communications minister who was a Phorm enthusiast. The Information Commissioner's Office remains in its Alice-in-Wonderland position of backing Phorm's technology, provided it complies with data protection laws – which, of course, is the unresolved issue. Another player is Ed Richards, chief executive of Ofcom. The telecoms watchdog has a regulatory role but also an interest in ensuring some resolution to the parlous position that the media has found itself in regarding advertising.

One of the primary roles for the government is to create certainty for citizens and for business. In this sorry saga it has created uncertainty and it was left to the EU to take a line on the original trials, which were ruled illegal. The government knows that there is now an information superhighway where everyone is busy trying to put up billboards. When roads became very busy with cars, a highway code and a planning system was developed to prevent dangerous situations. What is needed now is a similar clear plan for the web highway.

Source: The Guardian

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