Page Impressions Ltd Blogcetera: Europe steps into save UK Users from Phorm's snooping!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Europe steps into save UK Users from Phorm's snooping!

Finally someone is willing to fight for our rights to privacy in the UK.  Sadly it isn't our Government. The European Commission has today started legal action against the Government over its failure to protect the privacy of British Internet users.

The case was sparked by BT’s covert use of the controversial user-tracking technology Phorm on customers using BT’s internet service in 2006 and 2007.

Phorm, a UK-based company founded in 2004, monitors users’ favourite sites and searches, and uses the information to deliver individually targeted advertising.  The European Commission has been concerned about the way Phorm was secretly tested in the United Kingdom. Last year, the Government through the Information Commissioner, backed Phorm after a complaint by Brussels.

However, Vivian Reding, the European Union's Commissioner for Information Society and Media, announced the first stage of legal action, saying that the UK Government had failed to implement European laws that protect Internet users under the terms of  'The Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003'.

"Technologies such a Internet behavioural advertising can be useful for businesses and consumers but they must be used in a way that complies with EU rules,” the Commissioner said. “These rules are there to protect the privacy of citizens and must be rigorously enforced by all member states.”

BT has already admitted that it conducted trials of Phorm without users’ consent in 2006 and 2007. A further, invitation-only, trial was conducted last year.

Ms Reding’s statement continued: “I call on the UK authorities to change their national laws and ensure that national authorities are duly empowered and have proper sanctions at their disposal to enforce EU legislation on the confidentiality of communications.”

Ms Reding’s contention is that UK laws must be tightened to protect consumers and comply with the ePrivacy Directive, which the UK Government signed up to in 2002. It came into force at the end of October 2003.

The Commission has now given the Government two months to respond to today’s “infringement proceeding” - the first stage of a legal process which could end up in the European Court of Justice for an alleged breach of the directive.  The directive states that user consent must be “freely given, specific, and informed”, and it requires EU member states to impose sanctions in the event of breaches of the rules.

Ms Reding reinforced her stern message to the British Government in her weekly video message, delivered via the European Commission’s website.

“Privacy is a particular value for us Europeans; a value reflected in European laws for many years,” she said.

“However, in spite of the many advantages of technological development, there is an undeniable risk that privacy is being lost to the brave new world of intrusive technologies. On the global information highways, personal information is increasingly becoming ‘the new currency’. And I believe that Europeans… must have the right to control how their personal information is used.”

“European privacy rules are crystal clear,” she said. “A person's information can only be used with their prior consent. We cannot give up this basic principle, and have all our exchanges monitored, surveyed and stored, in exchange for a promise of ‘more relevant’ advertisements! I will not shy away from taking action where an EU country falls short of this duty.”

Phorm has already been investigated by the police and the Information Commissioner over privacy concerns. It has attracted interest from UK ISPs including BT, Virgin Media and TalkTalk although no company has yet fully introduced the system.

Tim Berners-Lee spoke out passionately against Phorm at a meeting in the House of Commons in March this year. "It is very important that when we click, we click without a thought that a third party knows what we're clicking on," he said. "'What is at stake is the integrity of the Internet as a communications medium. It's important there should be no snooping on the Internet."

It has always been the contention of Blogcetera and many other industry observers that what Phorm was engaged in was both against the 'spirit' and the letter of the law as laid down in the EU directive that the British Government and Parliament passed into law.  Similarly there are privacy concerns as regards Google’s plans to use behavioural targeting to deploy “relevant” ads to users.  It will be interesting to see whether the EU Commission targets Google as well as Phorm.

Links  :The Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003

Additional Reporting: The Times

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