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net.wars: Wanted: less Sir Humphrey, more shark

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 30 October 2010


Seventeen MPs showed up for Thursday's Backbenchers' Committee debate on privacy and the Internet, requested by Robert Halfon (Con-Harlow). They tell me this is a sell-out crowd. The upshot: Google and every other Internet company may come to rue the day that Google sent its Street View cars around Britain. It crossed a line.

Wendy M Grossman

That line is this: "Either your home is your castle or it's not." Halfon, talking about StreetView and email he had from a vastly upset woman in Cornwall whose home had been captured and posted on the Web.

It's easy for Americans to forget how deep the "An Englishman's home is his castle" thing goes.

Halfon's central question: are we sleepwalking into a privatized surveillance society, and can we stop it? "If no one has any right to privacy, we will live in a Big Brother society run by private companies." StreetView, he said, "is brilliant – but they did it without permission." Of equal importance to Halfon is the curious incident of the silent Information Commissioner (unlike apparently his equivalent everywhere else in the world) and Google's sniffed wi-fi data. The recent announcement that the sniffed data includes contents of email messages, secure Web pages, and passwords has prompted the ICO to take another look.

The response of the ICO, Halfon said, "has been more like Sir Humphrey than a shark with teeth, which is what it should be."

Google is only one offender; Julian Huppert (LibDem–Cambridge) listed some of the other troubles, including this week's release of Firesheep, a Firefox add-on designed to demonstrate Facebook's security failings. Several speakers raised the issue of the secret BT/Phorm trials. A key issue: while half the UK's population choose to be Facebook users (!), and many more voluntarily use Google daily, no one chose to be included in StreetView; we did not ask to be its customers.

So Halfon wants two things. He wants an independent commission of inquiry convened that would include MPs with "expertise in civil liberties, the Internet, and commerce" to suggest a new legal framework that would provide a means of redress, perhaps through an Internet bill of rights. What he envisions is something that polices the behavior of Internet companies the way the British Medical Association or the Law Society provides voluntary self-regulation for their fields. In cases of infringement, fines, perhaps.

In the ensuing discussion many other issues were raised. Huppert mentioned "chilling" (Labour) government surveillance, and hoped that portions of the Digital Economy Act might be repealed. Huppert has also been asking Parliamentary Questions about the is-it-still-dead?

Interception Modernization Programme; he is still checking on the careful language of the replies. (Asked about it this week, the Home Office told me they can't speculate in advance about the details will that be provided "in due course"; that what is envisioned is a "program of work on our communications abilities"; that it will be communications service providers, probably as defined in RIPA Section 2(1), storing data, not a government database; that the legislation to safeguard against misuse will probably but not certainly, be a statutory instrument.)

David Davis (Con-Haltemprice and Howden) wasn't too happy even with the notion of decentralized data held by CSPs, saying these would become a "target for fraudsters, hackers and terrorists". Damien Hinds (Con-East Hampshire) dissected Google's business model (including £5.5 million of taxpayers' money the UK government spent on pay-per-click advertising in 2009).

Perhaps the most significant thing about this debate is the huge rise in the level of knowledge. Many took pains to say how much they value the Internet and love Google's services. This group know – and care – about the Internet because they use it, unlike 1995, when an MP was about as likely to read his own email as he was to shoot his own dog.

Not that I agreed with all of them. Don Foster (LibDem-Bath) and Mike Weatherley (Con-Hove) were exercised about illegal file-sharing (Foster and Huppert agreed to disagree about the DEA, and Damian Collins (Con-Folkestone and Hythe complained that Google makes money from free access to unauthorized copies). Nadine Dorries (Con-Mid Bedfordshire) wanted regulation to young people against suicide sites.

But still. Until recently, Parliament's definition of privacy was celebrities' need for protection from intrusive journalists. This discussion of the privacy of individuals is an extraordinary change.

Pressure groups like PI, , Open Rights Group, and No2ID helped, but there's also a groundswell of constituents' complaints. Mark Lancaster (Con-Milton Keynes North) noted that a women's refuge at a secret location could not get Google to respond to its request for removal and that the town of Broughton formed a human chain to block the StreetView car. Even the attending opposition MP, Ian Lucas (Lab-Wrexham), favored the commission idea, though he still had hopes for self-regulation.

As for next steps, Ed Vaizey (Con-Wantage and Didcot), the Minister for Communication, Culture, and the Creative Industries, said he planned to convene a meeting with Google and other Internet companies. People should have a means of redress and somewhere to turn for medication. For Halfon that's still not enough. People should have a choice in the first place.

To be continued…


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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).