We Need Confidence in our ISPs

Over the last few weeks there’s been a lot of controversy about Phorm, a new behaviour-based advertising service that matches advertisements to customer web habits. It’s reportedly being trialled by several UK ISPs including BT, Virgin and Talk Talk. My fellow blogger Stuart King commented on this service a few weeks ago.

Phorm seems to operate very close to the boundaries of what might be deemed illegal according to UK legislation. And today the BBC Web site reports a claim by Nicholas Bohm, of the Foundation for Information Policy Research, that BT tests carried out during 2006 and 2007 without the new knowledge of users were “an illegal intercept of users’ data”.

Regardless of the technicalities of whether or not this was illegal, it’s a disturbing development. ISPs are in a unique, privileged position to read the data of customers. They should aim to maintain the highest degree of trust with citizens. If we lose confidence in ISPs, it’s a major setback for our hopes of building a trustworthy information society.

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As you have identified, trust is a central issue here. When the creation of shareholder value is enshrined in law as the primary responsibility of a business, then we expect, as customers, that some actions taken by a company may not be congruent with our interests. However, we do expect a baseline of moral and ethical behaviour that ordinary members of our society regard as 'fair dealing'. Some of our major telecommunications companies have been financially weakened by poor strategic thinking, on their part, in the past. The apparently under-hand way in which they are trying to claw back those losses, by exploiting their customers' privacy, for no reward, falls below that baseline of behaviour. The mistrust it engenders spreads to all their dealings, severely damaging their, more honoured in the breach, 'brand values' in the eyes of anyone who understands the sleight of hand they are attempting to perform on the edge of legality. It makes their 'matey' corporate communications with their customer bases stink to high heaven of hypocrisy. Is the return worth the fundamental damage to their brands? Only they can decide, although based on past decision making one wouldn't bet against them sinking further into a morass of their own making.