Phone-hacking, Online Behavioural Advertising and Tobacco

I read a tweet yesterday asking ‘where were you when the News of the World died?’ suggesting that people will remember it in the same sort of way that they remember where they were when they heard about the assassination of JFK, or the death of Princess Diana. Now I’m pretty sure the demise of the News of the World isn’t close to being as memorable as either of those deaths – but I suspect I’ll remember where I when I heard: I was at a conference/workshop discussing privacy.

We were talking about what appears at least on the surface to be a very different kind of invasion of privacy than the News of the World’s phone hacking: Online Behavioural Advertising. It was a remarkable workshop, expertly put together by Judith Rauhofer in Edinburgh, bringing together representatives of the internet industry (representatives of Microsoft, Yahoo! and the Internet Advertising Bureau), academia, privacy advocacy and lawmakers – including the European Data Protection Supervisor, Peter Hustinx. It was a pretty fiery workshop – which seemed to me to reflect the real tensions and conflicts that exist in what is a highly contentious field.

The representative of the IAB defended his corner pretty aggressively, effective suggesting that privacy advocates want to kill an entire industry based on something for which no harm has been proved, and from which any harm is at the most potential rather than actual. There were distinct echoes of the defences of tobacco industry when he suggested that internet advertising doesn’t seek to influence people, merely to guide them better to the products and services that they want to buy. These echoes left me wondering if this kind of privacy intrusive system will go the same way that tobacco advertising did – particularly when he also suggested that even if rich Westerners can ‘afford’ to pay for their internet but that those outside our pampered world appreciate getting their internet services cheap or free, just at the cost of their privacy. The tobacco industry has been reaping rich harvests from the poorer parts of the world since Western governments started cracking down both on smoking and on tobacco advertising…

The news of the demise of the News of the World appeared right in the middle of one of the sessions – and set a lot of hearts racing. Did it mean that people REALLY care about privacy after all? Could this be a pivotal moment for the whole ‘business’ of privacy? I’m far from sure – because although people who work in the field can see the parallels between the way that the online advertising industry monitors, tracks and gathers information on pretty much all of us in pretty much all of our online activities and the News of the World’s phone tapping, I’m not at all sure that the public would see any similarity at all. They should – but it’s up to us in academia and advocacy to find better ways to explain it, and to explain the risks, and why we need to be more careful, and to demand more privacy friendly systems.

There are further parallels with the current phone-hacking saga – not least the coziness of the relationships between those invading privacy and the government. There may not be any individuals from the advertising industries as close to the Prime Minister as Andy Coulson, but at a corporate level the influence of the internet industry on the government appears stronger than ever.

What if anything could change this? Will it take some kind of Milly Dowler incident for people and governments to take it more seriously? Is even such an event possible in the murky world of behavioural tracking? It’s hard to imagine – but even a week ago so was the idea that such an institution as the News of the World could cease publishing. Everything is possible…