Thursday, 30 June 2011

Google+ and privacy circles

I've been arguing too few people pay attention to what privacy actually means.  We bandy the word around in all kinds of contexts.

Is data loss a privacy breach, or a breach of trust?  We willingly handed-over our private data to a third party - a data loss is just part of the risk equation, right?

Is a kiss-and-tell a privacy issue, or a disregard of implied confidentiality?

What is absolutely certain is that the web introduces a whole new domain of privacy issues.  Some say the internet changes everything, but at Open Digital we prefer to look at the internet simply as a tool facilitating human interaction; and, as such, the internet just offers a new and efficient medium for channelling some antisocial behaviour patterns.

Almost all online privacy worries boil down to one simple question: what are the likely consequences of my action?

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Privacy, utility and clarity

Ask ten digital policy experts their view on internet privacy and you're highly unlikely to get a consensus. In fact you might not hear the same opinion expressed by any two.

It will take a great deal of time and research to understand the best approach to provide a balanced right to privacy in the age of data ubiquity whilst protecting core democratic values like free speech.

>> Skip straight to the video >>

John Hendel, writing in The Atlantic, forecast a US/Europe split; with Europe heading down the regulation route as it attempts to protect individual privacy - through concepts such as the right to be forgotten; whilst the UN Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue's report on internet freedoms (pdf) clearly favours free speech - as does the US, given the First Amendment right.

A case from 2009 serves as a good example of the general conflict, when a German law firm attempted to get the names of convicted murderers removed from a Wikipedia page.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Open Digital Policy - the mission

James Firth, CEO
In a word it's about trust. The rapid pace of technological development over the last 30 years has left a generation of consumers baffled as to the risks and rewards of online engagement.

Open Digital Policy believes in the positive power of the internet; bringing convenience and new opportunities; as a global communications tool, to bridge cultural divides; as a citizen and consumer feedback channel, to hold governments and corporations to account; as a social platform to enrich lives; and, as an opportunity for all ethical businesses to innovate, compete and be rewarded.

The world wide web - the internet as we know it - is approaching 20 years old. The first UK national newspaper to publish online was the Electronic Telegraph edition of the Daily Telegraph, launched November 1994.  1994 was also the year was founded.  Yahoo! was founded a year later, and Google over 3 years after that - in September 1998.

I'll leave it to modern historians to argue over the exact year the commercial internet hit mainstream, but I'd argue it's only in the last 10 years as the internet started to impinge on so many aspects of our lives that the bulk of the population has become concerned about online trust. 

Similarly, through my policy work following various parliamentary committees and blogging (e.g on it's absolutely clear that the government, police and other public authorities are only now starting to get to grips with the issues.

But technology continues to advance, as each development enables successive improvements; and new services, such as location tracking, facial recognition, cloud hosting and social profiling cause new worries for many consumers, governments and corporations e.g. data protection, privacy, online libel, harassment, etc.

Businesses of all sizes have a keen interest in policy direction.  Many want to capitalise, some want to protect existing business models in an era of change, others are concerned about data security and data protection in an increasingly complex area.

We believe the long term interests of all internet users are actually rather closely aligned.  Given open platforms, open networks, and regulation only where regulation is truly needed; consumers will reward businesses who act with their interests at heart, and similarly avoid corporations who persistently break consumer trust; whilst we the consumer continue to enjoy new and innovative products.

Similarly, governments that embrace openness and transparency will grow stronger through direct oversight by the people they represent.

The internet closes the feedback loop.  Whereas printing and broadcast electronic media were one to millions mass communication tools, the net provides a scalable two-way channel.

In fact it's a multi-way channel: businesses who fail to listen to their customers find those customers simply find ways to tell other consumers of their grievance.  Public relations today is less about controlling the message and more about building a relationship - with the public!

We believe self regulation provides the best, most stable and democratic means to solve many emerging issues in a dynamic environment like the internet - and the multi-way nature gives the consumer a strong-enough voice to make this feasible.

Self-regulation is agile and responsive; compared to a regulatory approach, where the speed of the legislative process coupled with the lack of specialist knowledge inside legislative bodies means that legislation is often out of date by the time it is enacted; and, whilst well-meaning, legislation often has unintended and undesirable consequences, e.g. stunting the pace of development.

Julian Ranger, Chaiman
- Read Julian's thoughts
Regulation should be a last resort; be evidence-led; and, focus on fixing the root cause of problems, rather than attempting to fix the symptoms.

In the next few months we will be launching the Open Digital Privacy FoundationUsing the principles outlined above we will work with industry, consumer groups and government departments to emphasise the benefit of an ethical approach to the collection and processing of personal data.

Privacy is not just about the data collected, it's about being able to easily understand what we're sharing, with whom, and judge the likely ramifications of sharing.  Verbose privacy policies don't offer clarity; and, worse, allow some companies to accurately state in small print that data is shared far and wide yet  project an image of being amongst friends when encouraging users to share.

Only when there is clarity in understanding will we each be able to act in a manner appropriate to the setting (public, private, amongst close family/friends etc).

I personally believe in this mission, but I also represent the interests of ethical businesses who understand their customers' interests are closely aligned with the future of their online business.

Open Digital Policy is not a charity, nor is it a non-profit.  We aim to fund open research in digital policy through commercial activities that are compatible with our founding charter.  We pledge to release all our research and policy documents for re-use under a creative commons license.

Our business model is perhaps analogous to companies developing open source software, who fund 'free' software through commercial consultancy, training and support contracts.

We offer consultancy, policy advice and training across a range of digital policy areas using a network of associates - all experts in their fields.  But we also pledge to spend half of our profit on education, advocacy or other community activity in support of the aims of Open Digital Policy Organisation in order to ensure our commercial activities support but never overtake our mission.

To get involved in any aspect of our new venture please email, telephone 01252 560 426 or write to us:
Open Digital Policy Organisation Ltd
Reeds Industrial Park
Reeds Road
Surrey GU10 3BP

James Firth

CEO, Open Digital Policy Organisation