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An 'internet bill of rights' should be considered to protect people from "Big Brother Google", suggests Robert Halfon MP

On Thursday the Conservative MP for Harlow, Robert Halfon, initiated a debate on what he called the privatised surveillance society. Extracts from his speech are posted below.

HALFON-robert Google's intrusive activities: "Private companies seem to have acquired the right to photograph what goes on in people's gardens. That is a dangerous shift, because if no one has any right to privacy, we will soon be living - dare I say it? - with a privatised version of Big Brother run by some of the internet companies. That is the scenario slowly creeping up on us. I say that because many of my observations today will focus on Google's activities, such as street-mapping, accessing people's personal wi-fi addresses, and-as we learned from newspapers and Google's official blog a few days ago-the harvesting of personal e-mail addresses and passwords."

It's not just Google: "I acknowledge that Google is by no means the only guilty party. As The Wall Street Journal recently highlighted in a special series, there is a problem with what is termed scraping. Scraping is the process whereby internet companies such as Facebook and MySpace pass on user names and personal information to other companies for commercial purposes, without the consent of the individuals concerned."

Google's harvesting of personal data: "As The Daily Telegraph stated on 23 October 2010, Google admitted that it "downloaded personal data from wireless networks when its fleet of vehicles drove down residential roads taking photographs for its controversial Street View project. Millions of internet users have potentially been affected." Among the information gathered were millions of e-mails, passwords, and the addresses of websites visited by private households. That is unacceptable."

Questioning Google's honesty: "I find it hard to believe that a company with the creative genius and originality of Google could map the personal wi-fi details, computer passwords and e-mail addresses of millions of people across the world and not know what it was doing. My feeling is that the data were of use to Google for commercial purposes and that that is why it was done.:

Google should seek permission of people it photographs: "I have no problem with Google photographing me in my garden, or my house, and putting those images on the web, but the point is that I want to give Google permission to do so. I want to opt in. Some people will respond that any citizen can walk up a street, taking pictures of people's houses. Of course that is true, but there is a difference of scale and of commercial interest. Google was not sightseeing; it was creating a product to sell advertising on a mass scale."

A new legal framework is required to regulate Google and other internet companies: "The time has come for the Government to set up 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. Perhaps the best means would be an internet bill of rights, which would give the citizen some notion of his rights. At first, such an internet bill of rights might be a semi-voluntary code, as currently proposed in Europe.  The system would be self-regulating, in the same way as the British Medical Association can mediate over doctors' behaviour, or the Law Society can judge legal practice. If an inquiry finds cases in which a company has infringed upon people's privacy without their permission, perhaps there could be some sort of fine."

The full debate can be read here.


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