Baroness Sue Miller hosted an interesting meeting earlier today, billed (slightly tendentiously) as “The Internet Threat: Who needs privacy when we can have relevant ads?”.  Speakers included Sir Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of  of the World Wide Web) and a variety of other experts.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee was arguing that the integrity of the internet is under threat by the emergence of Deep Packet Inspection by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) - this now enables ISPs to scan the contents of all communications and the contents of all web pages viewed by their customers, and for that data to be analysed so that customer-specific targetted advertising can be produced.  This raises substantial privacy issues – as one speaker pointed out each person will have a different view as to what is private for them.

Of course, such privacy issues are not new.  Already, websites place cookies on the computers of those visiting the site “to enhance the experience” of those that visit the site again and many of these track what the user does (individuals can of course block cookies or subsequently erase them – so in a sense the user can control this).  Search engines like Google also keep track of the search terms typed in by those who use them and again target advertising and recommend links accordingly.

What is new about Deep Packet Inspection is that for effectively the first time ISPs are looking routinely into the material that is being transferred through their service – it is as though Royal Mail sorting office staff were given access to the content of all the correspondence that they were sorting.

In the US this is apparently explicitly banned.  In the UK, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act would appear to forbid this unless (Section 3 (3) (b)) it is “for purposes connected with the provision or operation of that service”.  So is targetted advertising a purpose connected with the provision or operation of that service?  Ultimately, this will no doubt be a question for the Courts, but, so we were told, Home Office guidance suggests that Deep Packet Inspection is permissable ….

Part of the argument has to be that websites and ISPs have to be able to make their money somehow and Peter Bazalgette, consigned to the audience, forcefully pointed out that the internet had destroyed the existing business model of many newspapers, much of the music industry and may do the same for films and books and that service providers had to evolve to find new ways of making revenue.

Some of my Parliamentary colleagues were keen to divert the debate on to the Government’s consultation on the draft Communications Data Bill.  However, there is a world of difference between a government that is accountable to Parliament collecting data and commercial companies that are accountable to no-one but their share-holders doing so.

There is a real debate to be had here and Sue Miller is to be congratulated for facilitating this morning’s meeting.

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