Who would you trust with your e-mail content: Google or GCHQ?

At the FIPR 10th birthday I was fascinated to hear an attack on HMG plans to record all on-line communications by a well-known civil liberties activitist who makes a point of using g-mail: because it is not Microsoft. There is an increasingly surreal quality to some of the debate over what is ethical. 

I personally I would much prefer to pay for service than get it free in return for allowing my e-mails and browsing to be analysed so as to target advertising to me. But I would not wish that business model to be made illegal. I do, however, believe that the monitoring of browsing and communications to target and support advertising-funded services should be based on clear and explicit consent.

I would also like to see a more serious debate on what consent really means, the means of checking that it really has been freely given by individuals who knew what they were doing, the conditions under which the data is stored and accessed and the responsibilities and liabilities of those running the systems.

I was not aware that e-mail I send to some-one with a g-mail account is liable to have the content analysed to aid the targetting of advertising to the person I am sending it to.

I wonder if the recipient was?

EURIM has been asked to organise a balanced briefing for MPs and policy advisors on the issues that might need to be discussed when Ministers do bring forward new legislation with regard to surveillance powers.

The better-informed MPs and some of the policy advisors would also like to see HMG plans discussed constructively in the context of:

  • emerging EU policy
  • the way systematic content monitoring increasingly forms part of the business models of major players who rely on advertising as their main revenue stream
  • the desire of content-owners to get ISPs to track, trace and remove those who seek to avoid paying what they think is rightfully theirs
  • the plans of equipment suppliers to deploy products and services that enhance privacy and security around supposedly authenticated transactions  
  • the accelerating transition of the Internet from fixed data connections over IPV4 to mobile audio-visual connections over IPV6

We cannot boil the ocean but, ever since I was a child, I have enjoyed throwing rocks into stinky pools to see what rises to the top. Today my excuse is “to help clarify debate”.

I await with interest the terms of reference that the EURIM Communications Regulation Group will agree. I confidently expect that they will decide this is a big issue to be taken step by step over time – not one for knee-jerk reactions. 

However, I do expect that they will wish to avoid spending time and money on “solutions” based on technologies and business models that may be obsolete before they are operational. I also expect that they will wish to see the conflicting ethical and moral positions debated with rather more rigour than has hitherto been the case.  

FIPR is one of the places where that debate will take place and I do recommend those of you who have not become a “friend” of FIPR to do so. I do not agree with all that is said – indeed some of it infuriates me – just as I delight in winding up some of the other “friends”.

But without the illumination that comes from the fire of some of their discussions, as at their recent anniversary, I would find it very much harder to even try to understand what is happening and why.