The UK is in a bit of a bad row. According the BBC news site, today the Speaker of the Commons has stepped down, there is an Irish child abuse report coming due, and violence is rife in a failing prison. What hasn’t made BBC headlines, is that the Prime Minister’s office has made it clear that it will not look into British ISPs’ business arrangements with Phorm. After noting that the government is interested in shielding citizens’ privacy, the Prime Minister’s office notes,
ICO is an independent body, and it would not be appropriate for the Government to second guess its decisions. However, ICO has been clear that it will be monitoring closely all progress on this issue, and in particular any future use of Phorm’s technology. They will ensure that any such future use is done in a lawful, appropriate and transparent manner, and that consumers’ rights are fully protected (Source).
The Prime Minister’s office is unwilling to ‘second guess’ the ICO, and instead refers petitioners (there were about 21,000) to the ICO’s public statement about Phorm. In that publication (dated April 8, 2009), the ICO stated that that:
Indeed, Phorm assert that their system has been designed specifically to allow the appropriate targeting of adverts whilst rigorously protecting the privacy of web users. They clearly recognise the need to address the concerns raised by a number of individuals and organisations including the Open Rights Group (Source).
It worries me when a Prime Minister’s office redirects someone to a report that, as written, suggests that a company will take complaints on good faith and try to effect changes in their system, especially when said company then resorts to negative PR to try and discredit the individuals and organizations launching those complaints. In this case, Phorm has established their StopPhoulPlay website, which targets those who offer negative comments of Phorm by declaring them ‘privacy pirates’ in an effort to discredit their advocacy work. In effect, we are seeing the Prime Minister’s office state that Phorm will listen to criticism, but it appears as though Phorm’s response has been to try and diminish the respect and credence of privacy advocates.
I’ll admit that seeing only 21,403 people sign the petition is kind of sad, especially when you consider that this is an online petition that is easy to disseminate and almost as easy to sign up for. At the same time, by stating that the ICO is independent Downing Street is effectively washing their hands of responsibility for any ill effects or fallout of Phorm. I’m not suggesting that as a result of the petition that the independence of the ICO should have been overturned, but it is interesting to see that this particular issue was responded to on a day where a variety of other events were happening in the UK, and the world more broadly. While I’ve heard that this is the equivalent of ‘burying’ the petition, I would want to walk back from that a bit and say that the government is, at least, not wanting to publicize their lack of engagement with this potential privacy problem. In separating government business and privacy business, the government is (if only implicitly) stating that as soon as the ICO makes a ruling that the government cannot discuss or overturn their decision.
In Canada, at least, we do routinely see the government comes at odds with various commissioners. When the government disagrees with a commissioner, this isn’t ‘influencing’ the commissioner, but instead is a moment where you see a very public discussion over particular matters. It’s a shame that we didn’t see the UK government try to initiate a similar discussion in relation to Phorm and behavioural advertising; it’s absolutely disappointing when we see more rigorous consumer protection discussions in the US about behavioural advertising (which lacks a privacy commissioner) than in the UK with it’s ICO.