In the last edition, I ranted about how Internet users are being subjected to unauthorised examination of the Web sites they visit by Internet Service Providers (ISPs). The whole idea was that once Web user interests are logged and analysed, they can be bombarded by advertising targeted at their “needs.”
My point was and still is that such intrusion is not only an invasion of people’s privacy, but also under certain laws governing interception of telecommunications, downright illegal.
It would seem that I am not the only one thinking along these lines. A recent analysis by Dr. Richard Clayton, a computer security researcher at the University of Cambridge, England, led him to think that such activities by companies like Google, Yahoo, and other ISPs does break the law. Also, it recently came to light that British Telecom ran trials of Internet usage software without first gaining the approval of its customers. Therefore, BT’s actions have been branded as an illegal interception of Internet users’ data.
It all comes back to something I mentioned in my last column, the Opt-In action by Internet users that legally gives permission for ISPs to scan Internet user habits. If surfers don’t give their permission to ISPs, then their actions may well be deemed as illegal under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. The Act makes the interception of any transmission across a public telecommunication system illegal without the explicit consent of users.
In response to this, Phorm, the provider of Internet usage software to the ISPs, stated: "The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) was drafted in the earliest days of the Internet. It is not designed to criminalise legitimate business activities—online targeted advertising is an accepted part of the Internet landscape today."
Acceptable part of the Internet landscape? What does that mean? Acceptable to whom? In my view, it can only be acceptable to those surfers who give permission to be probed, and of course, it is very acceptable to companies hoping to make a fat profit from the targeted Internet advertising they can sell.
The EU Commission Weighs In
In a closely related action, a European Commission advisory body on data protection recommended that Internet search companies like Google and Yahoo should only hold data for a maximum of six months. I am pleased to hear that the European Commission will likely impose this recommendation, which may result in a head-on clash with the likes of Google and Yahoo. Bill Gates can tell them how costly it is to argue with the EU Commission, after Microsoft had to pay a fine of $1.4billion for defying sanctions imposed on it for anti-competitive behaviour.