We must assert our rights

Derek Wyatt, former MP and chair of the All-Party Internet group, says that Google is not entitled to our private data.

Derek Wyatt

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I do not think privacy is taken seriously enough by internet companies. At the moment, if you want access to a certain product you have to agree to terms and conditions – which are often 80 or 90 pages long – that allow a company to use the information you submit. So the relationship between the user and the product is back-to-front. Rather it should be that a company cannot use the intellectual property that you own. The intellectual property rights belong to the citizen and if Google or Facebook or anybody else wants them, they should have to pay for them.

Yet at the moment, for instance, as part of so-called behavioural marketing, biographical information about my buying potential is sold to third parties without my knowledge. I feel very strongly about this: my intellectual property is mine and these companies have no right to sell anything more than I allow them to. If I’m using Facebook, for example, I should be able to tick boxes that say ‘yes, you can use this for Facebook’, while the option to also tick a box that says ‘you can’t use it for a third party’.

When it comes to Google’s privacy breaches, whether it’s the collecting of personal data from wifi networks or long-term storage of search data, the same principle ought to apply: Whose data is this? Whose rights are these? They’re not Google’s. And they’re certainly not Google’s to sell. These are our rights, this is our private data, and before Google or some other company uses this information, they should pay us a fee or we should allow it to happen and donate the fee to charity.

It is amazing that Google have got themselves into this mess. Google must have watched how Microsoft took on the world in the Nineties and the Noughties only to find itself fined so frequently that Microsoft is now almost a paragon of virtue. You would have thought that Google could have learnt from Microsoft’s previous mistakes, but it seems to think it is bigger than everybody, that it doesn’t matter what other countries’ governments believe, or what their citizens think. ‘This is Google and it has a right to information.’ Well, it does not.

I do not think any of this is what the Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin would wish. But things are now going on in areas in which the founders are not particularly interested. Either way, it is fundamentally wrong. And I am pleased that Germany and Italy are taking Google to court – in the long term I hope Europe will stand up to Google as it did with Microsoft.

None of this is to imply that that Google is out of control; it is just that it acts as if it has a right to information. The right to control our information belongs to us and we have to assert it.

In this context, the government’s role is very important. Standing up to Google, asserting our rights as citizens, is not something we can do on our own. However, it is not clear where one can legally take this issue. Google, for example, is an American company that may have its servers in a third-party country. That means that it is not obvious where, against who, or how you would seek legal redress. I think one’s case would be much stronger, as happened with mobile phones, if Europe as a whole stands up for the citizen. It is much harder if the 27 countries have got to act independently of one another. The problem at the moment is that it is easier for Google to take each country one by one. Yet if 27 countries come together and say, ‘these are our rules and this is how you have to do it’, then I think Google would have to listen. That is what happened with Microsoft, and rightly so.

Ideally, of course, there should be an international regulatory framework. I’ve been arguing for this for 15 years, but I have not got many people interested. But that is the problem. There’s no international court of the internet. And anyway, whenever there are international courts, you will find that America won’t belong. That is how America thinks: it’s against the international court at the Hague and won’t sign the Children’s Charter rights from the United Nations. Peculiarly, because of America’s written constitution, Americans define things in their own terms first without thinking of the global implications. Still, there is a precedent for international cooperation of this type. Just as we had the International Telecommunication Union with telephony, so we had the Universal Postal Union with the postal service – it seems natural that there ought to be an I- or U-something for the internet, a world body of some sort.

The need for a world body is simply going to grow and grow over the next 10 years. We can see how Google made a mess of things in China, we can see how French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s ‘three strikes and out’ rule for persistent illegal downloading has not resulted in any case actually coming to court, and you can see in the United Kingdom how the Digital Economy bill was rushed through in two days right at the end of the last government and that’s clearly wrong.

There needs to be somewhere for the citizen, the politician, the academic and the business to come together. It is not clear to me that a forum of that type currently exists. This is why I am trying to put together an internet policy centre for the UK – I think that is what is missing. I feel that this year has been a bad year for the internet. What we need is somewhere to have conversations about these new issues as they arise. If you look at China, if you look at India, if you look at the Middle East, what they don’t have is the equivalent of the UK’s Internet Watch Foundation. These countries don’t have anything like that to protect children or the consumer. There needs to be a best practice place to come to for help, and an internet policy centre could be that place.

Derek Wyatt was Labour MP for Sittingbourne and Sheppey before standing down at the 2010 General Election. He was chairman of the All-Party Internet Group until 2007 and then co-chairman of the All-Party Communciations group. See his website here. This article is based on an interview by Tim Black.

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