Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Will social media background checks be the catalyst for a consumer privacy backlash?

Studies show an overwhelming majority of people are ‘concerned’ about their online privacy [see here (pdf), and here], yet when I talk to technology companies large and small they tell me privacy awareness amongst the general public is patchy at best.

As social media background checks start to result in applicants being rejected for jobs simply because of pictures and comments posted on social websites, could we start to see a crippling privacy backlash that will prevent adoption of useful technology because of public fear and mistrust?

Personal data is a commodity that can be traded for ease of functionality (ie reconnect with old friends, recommendations based on past interests) or for free or discounted services.  Additionally, there's the ability to post views and beliefs in an attempt to influence a wide audience.

There are three equations in play:
privacy vs utility
privacy vs price
privacy vs influence
Anecdotally; and also through adoption rates for social media, and store discount cards which track customers' every purchase; in the UK at least we're a nation happy to trade privacy for utility and price.

Or are we? When I talk to family and friends about blogging - an unmistakably public activity - under my real name; many are surprised, and some offer me hushed advice to be careful.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Open Digital's response to the 2nd BSkyB takeover consultation

The Open Digital Policy Organisation Limited,
Reeds Industrial Park
Reeds Road
Surrey GU10 3BP

8th July 2011

Dear Secretary of State,

The Open Digital Policy Organisation reiterates the view of its CEO, James Firth, submitted to the first consultation on the 17th March 2011, and reproduced in full here: http://ejf.me/dB

In summary, issues of media plurality in the digital age cannot be considered without looking also at the internet; and, in particular, the privileged position an internet service provider (ISP) like Sky Broadband, owned and operated by BSkyB, holds in its ability to sway - or even restrict - the choice of online news sources available to its subscribers.

Such distortion can come through cross-promotion or price bundling of subscription news services, such as News International's Times Online service, with BSkyB services.  This may or may not unfairly distort the market for other online news providers, and we believe the proper way to assess this concern is for a full competition inquiry.

Distortion could also come through restrictive practices that break principles of so-called network neutrality - but Open Digital Policy believe this issue needs to be addressed separately; in a way that best ensures all ISPs see the market benefit of offering an open internet, and are prevented by law from employing anti-competitive practices in the management of their networks.

We also re-iterate James' concern about potential to distort the market for advertising crucial in supporting news organisations, and therefore critical to the plurality of the press in the UK. With a potential for bundled print, TV and internet advertising deals; again, we believe a Competition Commission inquiry would be the proper place to assess any impact on other news outlets should BSkyB and News International be in a combined position to offer cross-channel advertising deals.

James Firth

CEO, and on behalf of, Open Digital Policy Organisation Limited

Friday, 1 July 2011

John Stuart Mill and liberty, regulation and protection of privacy

In a talk in London on 29 July, Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google, argued against over-regulation. His premise was that yes the advancements that technology brings can bring with it, in the first flush of that technology, problems; however, those problems that public opinion finds important will most often be solved by technology or by a procedural response to it. In other words give time for the system to self-correct - and presumably only if self-correction does not come (especially after some heavy hinting from opinion and also authority) then regulate.

We must accept that defining what aspects of the web and the Internet to regulate by law and what to regulate by self regulation guided by opinion (on the basis that if you do harm to the customer as a business, eventually the customer will do harm to you) is a very difficult conundrum. What seems clear is that over-regulation is not the answer - but what is over- regulation you may ask?

Eric illustrated his point with a simple example: when telephones became commonplace there was a concern from users that switchboard operators could over-hear conversations and intrude on privacy. Of course they could, and it may well have been a reaction to impose laws on this and in so doing limit what actions could then be taken to replace/improve switchboard operation. Instead no laws were created and relatively shortly the electrical switch was invented which solved the problem without the need for new laws.

I am concerned with the issue of privacy with respect to the web - particularly the self-harm that can be incurred by over-sharing using sites and services which appear private, but are not so - see Clarity in Internet Privacy. However, I am also concerned that legislation in this area, particularly different legislation in different jurisdictions, will not help and will in fact hinder as the world wide web effectively becomes fragmented, and the positive benefits of the web get inhibited. Furthermore, undoubtedly legislation that is rushed may well inhibit further beneficial innovation.

It is important therefore to try and improve privacy through exercise of self control guided by public opinion, and through the application of new technology, and give time for this to occur, before rushing to consider legislation.

The well known philosopher John Stuart Mill summed up this issue well in his essay On Liberty:
"All that makes existence valuable to any one, depends on the enforcement of restraints upon the actions of other people. Some rules of conduct, therefore, must be imposed, by law in the first place, and by opinion on many things which are not fit subjects for the operation of law. 
What these rules should be, is the principal question in human affairs; but if we except a few of the most obvious cases, it is one of those which least progress has been made in resolving. 
No two ages, and scarcely any two countries, have decided it alike; and the decision of one age or country is a wonder to another."
Mill goes on to conclude:
"That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others."
On the basis that the most egregious of privacy ills today is self-harm, it seems to be that awareness is our first step, followed by self-regulation, not governmental regulation.