Government Minister Wants ISPs To Be Content Cops

Google’s WiSpy was a problem, says Peter Judge. But Ed Vaizey’s mediation idea would rush towards censorship, in the name of protecting privacy

Two interesting things have come out of the ongoing row against Google over privacy, sparked by the WiSpy incident, when its Street View cars inadvertently snooped emails, passwords and URLs from citizens’ Wi-Fi networks.

Firstly, we now know that a lot of people round the world still have unsecured Wi-Fi networks, even years after WEP and WPA security became standard on all equipment shipped to businesses and consumers. This is quite a shock, as the Wi-Fi industry has been working hard to make encryption a default, and an easy thing to implement.

Secondly, we found that public watchdogs round the world, while still unwilling to sink any teeth into Google, actually do understand the issues of privacy better than we might have thought.

Canada, Italy, Spain, Germany and other places all gave Google a slapped wrist, the US FTC investigated and let the company off, and the UK’s watchdog, the ICO, is investigating again, though it has said it won’t make a knee jerk reation.

When it comes down to it, that’s probably the right reaction, as the company confessed voluntarily, changed its procedures and – as far as we can tell – never intended to misuse the data.

Government reactions, however, may be another matter. One minister in the UK came up with a response to the WiSpy fiasco, which has been getting a proper kicking on the net.

Let’s have ISPs censor the Internet?

Ed Vaizey (left), the Minister for Communication, Culture, and the Creative Industries, said on Thursday, that he’d like to see a “mediation service”, whereby anyone whose privacy is violated on the Internet could ask ISPs to take the offending material down.

The idea is not government policy. It came up in a backbench debate on privacy started by Tory MP Robert Halfon, and what Vaizey said was more in the nature of flying a kite, in a debate which – according to one of the fuller online accounts – was attended by only seventeen MPs.

“Nominet, the charity that is responsible for Internet domain names, runs an extremely effective mediation service, so that people who are disputing the ownership of an Internet domain name may be involved in a low-cost process to discuss how to resolve that dispute,” he said.

“It is certainly worth the government brokering a conversation with the Internet industry about setting up a mediation service for consumers who have legitimate concerns that their privacy has been breached or that online information about them is inaccurate or constitutes a gross invasion of their privacy to discuss whether there is any way to remove access to that information,” he went on.

The debate had just heard of a women’s refuge whose location was revealed by Google Street View, just the latest instance of data revealed by the service against its owners’ wishes.

Privacy assumptions

Both Google’s Wi-Fi snooping and its display of images on Street View, revealed a clumsy company that simply didn’t “get” privacy. The data snooped by Wi-Fi was not made public, but the images were. The thing that revealed most about Google’s attitude was its assumption that people would be OK about a service which required them to opt out, or be shown on the web.

Vaizey’s response seems equally naive. Nominet’s domain mediation service is well-established and deals with cases which are mostly cut-and-dried. Vaizey’s proposed service would very quickly get bogged down in the same issues which clog up the libel courts.

If someone asks for something to take it down, would ISPs have to simply agree, and take the material down until they get an appeal which explains why it should not be a problem? If so, then celebrities and corporations could easily use the service to remove any public criticism or coverage with which they don’t feel happy.

It’s obviously a turkey, with no prospect of happening.

Except, of course for the close resemblance it has to the Digital Economy Act, with its proposals that ISPs police copyright online on behalf of music and movie owners. And the fact that Vaizey said it in a public debate, no matter how sparsely attended and how far outside the policy making loop.

Privacy activists should be ready to lock horns with the government over this proposal, if it ever emerges in a more robust form.

And Ed Vaizey should join Google in a remedial class on online privacy.