Paying for the government’s privacy pathos

Europe sues UK over online privacy concerns.

News that the European Commission is suing the British government over its failure to tighten up privacy laws is hardly a big surprise - the EC has been trying to get the government to act since BT ran a covert web browsing analysis type-o-thing back in 2006.

BT trialled some technology from a US company called Phorm that monitors your browsing habits in order to offer you more targeted web adverts: so if you were to browse a few websites advertising cars, the next website you were to visit might also feature a car or car insurance ad. Or if you do a few searches for engagement rings and the next time your beloved sits down at the computer she's bombarded with adverts for honeymoons: pure genius.

The major problem with the trial was that BT forgot to mention it to its broadband subscribers, raising a number of issues around privacy. It made a subsequent trial an "opt-in" rather than an "opt-out", but the damage was done.

To be fair, BT insisted it was operating within the law, and when the issue was raised with the City of London Police they agreed. BT customers who complained to the Information Commissioner were also told that the department had no powers to investigate, while the Investigatory Powers Tribunal said - you guessed it - there was nothing it could do either, as it can only act when data has been intercepted by governments.

The EC thought this all a bit off, frankly, and sent a series of stinging letters to the then Labour government saying it needed to comply with the EC's Data Protection Directive and the ePrivacy Directive governing the confidentiality of electronic communications.

It's got no further with the Coalition government, so it's taking it to court. The Home Office is now faced with a case referral to the European Court of Justice, which if successful, could mean fines running into the millions for failure to comply with the European laws (and we all know who will ultimately pay those fines - the taxpayer).

As for Phorm, the company has pretty much given up on selling its ad targeting technology in the UK and headed off to Brazil, after finding a Brazilian ISP prepared to use its technology. Phorm may not have a much easier ride there though - the Brazilian Ministry of Justice has so far given them a pretty cool reception.

A spokesperson for Phorm today told the NS that, "Phorm believes it would be inappropriate for it to comment [on the news] on the basis that it is no longer operating in the UK." To be honest, it's a wonder it's still operating anywhere, having posted losses of $29.7m last year.

As for the Home Office, a spokesperson said that the government was, "Planning to make changes to address the Commission's concerns and will be setting out more detail on any necessary amendments or legislation in due course". Maybe best not to leave it too long this time, eh.

Jason Stamper is NS technology correspondent and editor of Computer Business Review.

Jason Stamper is editor of Computer Business Review

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Europe's elections show why liberals should avoid fatalism

France, Germany and the Netherlands suggest there is nothing inevitable about the right's advance.

Humans are unavoidably pattern-seeking creatures. We give meaning to disparate events where little or none may exist. So it is with Brexit and Donald Trump. The proximity of these results led to declarations of liberalism's demise. After decades of progress, the tide was said to have unavoidably turned.

Every election is now treated as another round in the great duel between libralism and populism. In the Netherlands, the perennial nativist Geert Wilders was gifted outsize attention in the belief that he could surf the Brexit-Trump wave to victory. Yet far from triumphing, the Freedom Party finished a distant second, increasing its seats total to 20 (four fewer than in 2010). Wilders' defeat was always more likely than not (and he would have been unable to form a government) but global events gifted him an aura of invincibility.

In France, for several years, Marine Le Pen has been likely to make the final round of the next presidential election. But it was only after Brexit and Trump's election that she was widely seen as a potential victor. As in 2002, the front républicain is likely to defeat the Front National. The winner, however, will not be a conservative but a liberal. According to the post-Trump narrative, Emmanuel Macron's rise should have been impossible. But his surge (albeit one that has left him tied with Le Pen in the first round) suggests liberalism is in better health than suggested.

In Germany, where the far-right Alternative für Deutschland was said to be remorselessly advancing, politics is returning to traditional two-party combat. The election of Martin Schulz has transformed the SPD's fortunes to the point where it could form the next government. As some Labour MPs resign themselves to perpeutal opposition, they could be forgiven for noting what a difference a new leader can make.

2016 will be forever remembered as the year of Brexit and Trump. Yet both events could conceivably have happened in liberalism's supposed heyday. The UK has long been the EU's most reluctant member and, having not joined the euro or the Schengen Zone, already had one foot outside the door. In the US, the conditions for the election of a Trump-like figure have been in place for decades. For all this, Leave only narrowly won and Hillary Clinton won three million more votes than her opponent. Liberalism is neither as weak as it is now thought, nor as strong as it was once thought.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.