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MPs wake up to 21st century and internet

Groundbreaking ideas like: Google bad, privacy good

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A good caning for Google and calls for an internet Bill of Rights were just two of the topics exercising MPs' minds last week in the course of a milestone debate on the issue of internet privacy yesterday.

The debate was called by Robert Halfon, MP, who opened by expressing concerns about the emergence of a "privatised surveillance society".

As a "Westminster Hall" debate, it has no formal or binding effect on government – but the fact that it took place, and the range and intensity of input from a number of MPs, suggests that this topic is one that is now well and truly on the parliamentary agenda.

First up was Google. Mr Halfon revealed dealings he had had with the Office of the Information Commissioner (ICO) in respect of various Google initiatives, such as StreetView and the mapping of Wi-Fi locations. He expressed surprise and concern that the ICO had initially stated that there appeared to be no significant breach of the Data Protection Act – and then had said that there had indeed been a breach, but that the DPA had no power to intervene.

Former Tory leadership contender David Davis went further, accusing Google of lying. He said: "[This] sounds like a systematic pattern of behaviour, but it is worse than that. It is a systematic pattern of behaviour backed up, frankly, by systematic mendacity on the part of Google, which first says that it happened by accident, then says that it was a mistake and ends up saying, 'Well, we will eventually get rid of the data'."

This was supported, outside the debate, by Alex Deane, Director of Big Brother Watch, who said: "It is a great shame that the Met have let Google off the hook as what they did was plainly wrong.

"The ball is now back in Information Commissioner’s court. Thus far he has been an apologist for the worst offender in his sphere, not a policeman of it - let's hope that he now shows some teeth and punishes Google for its wrongdoing."

A number of members also expressed concerns at practices such as "scraping", whereby companies with a large online presence extract data from the personal accounts of individuals registered with them and then pass the data on to third parties. Don Foster, Lib Dem MP for Bath, was particularly incensed at the activities of companies such as ACS Law, which has been using "scraped" data to send threatening letters to individuals believed to have breached copyright laws. He added: "The idea that someone is innocent until proven guilty does not seem to apply for that law firm."

As the afternoon wound on, a number of trends became clear. First, in contrast to the last big debate on the internet hosted by the Select Committee for Culture, Media and Sport back in November 2008 – which was notable mostly for the way in which MPs queued up to claim that their children, their grandchildren (and possibly even their cat) knew more about the internet than they did – this was a far more mature, better-informed debate all round.

One possible difference was the nature of the new intake, with 2010 members, such as Julian Huppert, Lib Dem MP for Cambridge, intervening at length and knowledgeably on the subject. By contrast, the low attendance by Labour MPs and their almost complete lack of participation in the debate was noted by others present.

Second, it demonstrated that MPs have woken up to the serious implications for civil liberties that flow from the fact that vast amounts of personal data are now being placed online every day. They are unfortunately not clear on what exactly should be done about this.

However, this debate places two new and important ideas on the political agenda. The first is the call for an internet "Bill of Rights", with which Robert Halfon opened the debate. The second – more likely in the immediate future – is a "serious commission of inquiry composed of members who have expertise in civil liberties, the internet and commerce. The commission should suggest a new legal framework to redress the balance, giving citizens an affordable and speedy means of redress".

Have MPs finally begun to join the 21st century? ®

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