Facebook privacy policy vote ignored – a worrying sign for the draft UK Communications Data Bill?

Facebook Twitter Google + LinkedIn

Just a few weeks after the mass circulation of a fake Facebook update on privacy, Facebook users overwhelmingly ignored the last-ever public vote on the network's privacy policy. And just as common sense seems to be losing out to ignorance, the UK Government is debating The Draft Communications Data Bill - which has been labelled a ‘snooper’s charter’ by opponents. The Government claims the Bill is necessary to allow police to view Internet activity to stop terrorism. Objectors claim it’s just a state surveillance project. Here, ClickThrough copywriter Martin Boonham assess these viewpoints with his own sideways helping of cynicism

Online privacy doesn’t really exist anymore. Social networks encourage everyone to share: and most people do.

In fact, many people are quite happy to plaster images of their Friday night debauchery all over social networking sites like Facebook, without any regard for privacy settings.

I guess these are the same people who, just a fortnight ago, myopically forwarded the scammy status updates claiming Facebook was about to steal all their copyright.

The same people who raged it was unfair, without considering that they’d ticked a terms and conditions box to be on Facebook in the first place.

The same people who, this week, didn’t bother to take part in Facebook’s last-ever public vote on its actual, real privacy policies.

When the Facebook privacy vote ended on Monday (Dec 10), only 589,141 users had actually voted to oppose changes to the privacy policy. The vote has now finished - but the Facebook Site Governance page explains what will happen now in more detail.

Whilst that figure may seem impressive, there are around one billion people on Facebook.

So, the half a million who bothered to click to register their objection actually represent a voter turnout of less than one per cent. There needed to be more than 300 million votes for the decision to count.

That’s online democracy in action: and it painfully shows the general apathy from the Facebook-loving public when it comes to genuine privacy matters.

The result of that vote is quite far-reaching: the public will no longer be given a democratic say in privacy matters on Facebook by default. (Instead, the site will implement changes based on direct user feedback).

Of course, Facebook exists in its own little world, but the Internet is far, far bigger than just Facebook.

And it’s this wider Internet universe – which includes search engines, news websites, forums, emails and video views - that the UK Government wants the legal right to snoop in.

If recent Facebook apathy is anything to go by, the great British public won’t do much to try to alter the Bill.

In fact, most probably need a helping hand to understand what online privacy really is.

The recent EU Cookie Law helped, to some extent: it was designed to try to improve online privacy for users, or at least, inform them that sites often drop cookies to monitor web behaviour.

But the Communications Bill has far deeper ramifications, and the debate here is not on Facebook.

The battle lines are drawn in Parliament.

In the red corner - or should that be the yellow one? - is the perennial ‘other guy’ of politics, Nick Clegg, touting support for a nice balance of security and liberty, claiming the Bill ‘cannot proceed’ in its current form.

In the blue corner, there’s Home Secretary Theresa May, spouting warnings of terrorism, peppered with claims that opponents of the bill are putting politics before people’s lives, dammit!

That Jack Bauer ‘dammit’ has been added for effect: it in no way represents what Theresa May actually said, but I feel it summarises the CTU-style “whatever it takes” anti-terrorism stance made famous in 24.

Terrorists are not the only villains in this piece however: the proposals also aim to counter online paedophiles and fraudsters.

The thing is, the draft Communications Bill almost imputes a Four Lions-esque stupidity on the part of terror suspects; they shake their heads vigorously from side-to-side to avoid being recognised on CCTV, and meet up to discuss bomb plots on children’s networking sites, with penguin avatars that complain of hunger as much as they do about the kaffirs of Western capitalism.

But what does the proposal really mean for us regular folk? You know, the ones that use the Internet for normal stuff, like reading up footy results, work, or social networking?

Well, under the plans, our Internet providers would be obliged by the Government to store details of all online communications. From emails to gran, belatedly thanking her for your birthday money, to the regrettable missive to an ex, typed clumsily post-midnight after a few too many shots of wowee sauce, it’ll all go on a central database, just in case you turn out to be a terrorist.

Under the draft, the Government proposes online communications data would be stored for a year, together with the time of communication, the duration, the originator and recipient of a communication, as well as the location of the device on which it was made.

Justifiably, many opponents fear the bill has inklings of an Orwellian, 1984-style scenario, with Big Brother casting an all-seeing eye over everything we do online.

But there is a catch – thanks to Data Protection. The police would not be required to seek permission to access the information if investigating a crime, but they would need a warrant to see the content of any messages ad hoc.

Privacy is the key word in the whole thing.

On one hand, people are up in arms about who has access to their personal information, but many people seem to forget that search engines like Google already have a humongous amount of data on us, our likes, our behaviour, and our favourite websites.

In fact, Google probably knows what you will be having for dinner before you do…and where you got it from.

For Governments, the amount of information available to Google must be a worry:  it’s possible there’s a bit of jealousy, in fact, that Google gets the gossip and the Government has to guess.

Google has had to fight its corner. The company has often spoken about a free and open internet, and has protested openly in the face of censorship requests from Governments.

But whilst Google did reject certain demands, at the same time, they upheld a fair few. Not least in China (where state censorship is a very different issue to state snooping).

In the UK, Google has obliged these requests by removing sites that could have been classed as offensive or inciting trouble from its results: but at the same time, the engine has blocked police requests to take down a site questioning the force’s commitment to race relations.

In this quest for a free and open internet, Google has launched a site specifically targeting the International Telecommunications Union, which is currently meeting in Dubai and attempting to thrash out a treaty between numerous countries over a suggested shift in control and regulation of the Internet, to something under UN control.

These proposals, much like those in the Communications Data Bill, certainly walk on the risky grounds of censorship, with personal information accessible to the Government.

Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web, but seems more recently famous as the random guy sitting in a house on a computer during the London Olympics opening ceremony, has voiced his concerns about Internet privacy.

He warned an audience at the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) earlier this year that anything which leads to Governments having permission to access data would be a serious breach of privacy.

Now, when someone like him speaks up against the idea of Governments taking our information and data freely, his opinion is infinitely more valuable than a few people moaning on Facebook about something they actually don’t understand, or can’t really be bothered to do anything about.

The biggest worry, really, is that the Government is yet to prove the Bill will actually be effective in cutting out terrorism or paedophilia online.

And until it does, the only people the police have to snoop on are us.

Subscribe to our blog and get the latest industry-updates direct to your inbox