TOC Hunting season Your Turn

April 28, 2009

Spring has arrived and with it favorable weather to go hunting in Massachusetts. By law though, choice of prey for the coming weeks is limited to turkeys. Remembering other reverberating shots (1), one is excused to think these local circumstances must have world wide appeal.

First Eric Pfanner reports a Swedish court bagged, I mean, "convicted four men linked to an Internet file-sharing service, the Pirate Bay, of violating copyright law" (*). The defendants' claim "they did not actually host any of the copyrighted material on their servers" is plain disingenuous. Straight shooting by the court reminds us that hunting can be a highly honorable and lawful activity.

On the other hand European authorities should have resisted the call from our modern lords, to the brand borne. Nikki Tait tells us the European Parliament has extended music recording copyrights by 20 years to 70 years (**). I know this is less than what was requested by our lords. I note the unbranded, i.e. the session musicians, will receive a small handout. Yet the more the legislative power extends hunting privileges for the mighty, the more decent people it turns into poachers. And the more poachers find themselves hunted by the authorities, the more likely the revolution.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the French President, similarly seems out of tune. Why does he so want to have the French Parliament pass the HADOPI law despite the obvious reluctance of the people's representatives (2)? Universal suspicion - all Internet users are targeted as potential pirates, organized delation - blacklists are the tool of choice (3), state mandated spying - Internet Service Providers are to be the enforcers, summary justice - Internet access is to be cut before the victim can complain. Consumers may feel it's open season and they are the turkeys.

Turkeys of course are not hunted just for the fun of exercising a lordly privilege. In the hands of a competent cook, these are eminently edible birds whose flesh wets the appetite of many a hunter. Last week we examined how Phorm proposes to increase consumer privacy when implementing behavioral advertising. It is also instructive to look at the storm behind Phorm.

It appears Ms Viviane Reding, EU Commissioner for the Information Society and Media, is deeply concerned about Phorm (4). I respect her sudden interest in eprivacy. I regret she was hibernating when the EU Commission approved Google's acquisition of DoubleClick. I wonder at her trumpeting the need for consumer consent. Has she ever heard of coerced consent by bundled opt in?

Perhaps the most comical protest against Phorm is the one from Amazon UK, as detailed by Dawn Kawamoto (***). Simon Davies, of Privacy International, famously exposed how Amazon UK was itself guilty of egregious violations of consumer privacy (5). As the pot calling the kettle black, Amazon is surely showing poor form. In order to complain about Phorm-based spying, a destination site ought to be at least as respectful of its users as Wikipedia which, per Ryan Singel's report (****), also asked Phorm to stop tracking.

To make sense of this storm, let us adopt the point of view of the turkey. Denied any privacy right, it knows it is as good as cooked. But will it really worry much as by whom? When BT allies with Phorm to capture an Internet user behavior, is the result any different as when an advertising network accumulates the same information from destination site owners, directly or indirectly?

Far from being a new threat to the consumer, Phorm is definitely a mighty challenge for the competition. When BT looks at a consumer behavior on Internet, it does not need to buy data from destination sites like Amazon. Since BT has access to the complete activity of its Internet subscriber, it can learn even more than Google on this consumer.

Savor the irony. Mortal threat to consumer privacy, the Google DoubleClick deal was authorized by the EU Competition Directorate. Key factor to increase competition in Internet advertising, Phorm may be killed by the Information Society Directorate. To resolve internal conflicts, will the EU commission Dick Cheney to organize a hunting party (6)?

Readers may laugh at dysfunctions inside the EU Commission. They should not forget every legal system throughout the world is victim of similar festering wounds. Were Internet user communications truly sacred, BT should be prevented from using Phorm. But then why burden ISP's with the enforcement of the HADOPI law? And how come cellular phone and cable companies are allowed to spy on their users with impunity?

As long as consumers are denied the right to their own data, they are like dead turkeys despite hunters' heated disputes as to who gets the first shot.

Philippe Coueignoux

April 2009
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