Don Foster MP


The Internet and Privacy

December 6, 2023 by admin in Don in Parliament, News

Mr Don Foster (Bath) (LD): Many other Members want to speak, so I will make my remarks as brief as I can. I congratulate the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on securing this really important debate. In passing, let me tell him that it is not necessary for many of us to repeat what he said about Google, because I suspect that nearly all of us share a real concern about what has happened. We are particularly concerned that this country seems to be doing significantly less about these issues than almost anywhere else in the world, and we need to do something about that.

I particularly commend the hon. Gentleman on drawing attention to the simple fact that there is a big difference between an ordinary member of the public taking a photograph of somebody’s house and Google taking pictures for Street View. That is because of not just the scale at which Google is operating, which my hon. Friend rightly mentioned, but the purpose. Google is doing this for commercial purposes. I do not know whether my hon. Friend is aware of this, but the latest figures on the value of e-commerce in this country were revealed just today. In a few years, the value of e-commerce has gone from nothing to £100 billion, or 7% of the economy, and we all know that that figure will rise. It is therefore not surprising that Google wants to capture as many data as possible and to use them for commercial purposes. That is why we have to be particularly mindful to ensure that we have the right safeguards in place in the growing e-commerce market.

I was delighted that my hon. Friend drew attention to others who are scraping and gathering data of one sort or another. As has been said, there is a real issue not only about whether they should be allowed to gather data and to use them for some of the purposes that they do, but about security, as we have seen, sadly, on so many occasions with the large collections that are held.

I draw particular attention to ACS:Law. Many people will be aware that that law firm is making money by sending letters to people saying that they have allegedly been involved in illegal file sharing or similar illegal activities on the internet. It then demands about £500 from the recipient. If they fail to provide the money, the firm threatens legal action. As my hon. Friend said, the idea that someone is innocent until proven guilty does not seem to apply for that law firm. However, the real concern is not about the activity that ACS:Law is undertaking, although many of us should be concerned about it, but about the simple fact that it, too, recently managed to get hold of a lot of data from ISPs. The information, which was not encrypted, was sent by e-mail, which it should not have been. Other people then obtained it and used it for inappropriate activities. Even worse, the firm managed to put some of the data on its own website. There are real issues about the security of data.

Another issue, which has not been touched on, although I mentioned it in a brief intervention, relates to the activities of organisations such as Phorm. As many hon. Members know, Phorm was apparently established secretly. BT ran trials in about 2007 to gather details about how people operated on the internet and what sites they looked at, so that information and advertising could be targeted at them. I accept that Phorm claims that it was developing a system that would completely protect the individual and maintain their anonymity. The problem, however, is that there was no evidence that members of the public knew that the trial was happening or that the system would give the protection that the firm claimed it would. I am, once again, saddened that proper investigations have not taken place.

That brings us to the role of the Information Commissioner. I hope that many Members will have listened to what he has to say. I do not want to make accusations about his role, but the difficulty for him and his team is that there is a lack of clarity about where the boundaries of his powers lie. One reason why we need to set up organisational structures to allow us to have the investigation that he proposes is that we need to look, among other things, at his role in dealing with the issues that we are discussing.

Nadine Dorries: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there is a lack of clarity and that the only way to guarantee clarity is to test those boundaries? It is not enough for the Information Commissioner to stand back and say that he does not know where the boundaries are; he needs to push them and test them, and he will soon find out where they are.

Mr Foster: The hon. Lady-indeed, my hon. Friend-is absolutely right to raise that issue. We have heard it argued that one barrier might be data protection legislation, but I have some difficulty understanding why somebody who is there to check out these issues on our behalf is being told that he and his staff cannot do their jobs because of such legislation. It is absolutely right that we have to push at the boundaries in the way that my hon. Friend suggests.

I want to end with a point that has been made by the hon. Member for Harlow and my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge. I have one criticism of my hon. Friend and I share one area of agreement with him. I find it difficult to accept entirely what he says about the Digital Economy Act 2010. I accept entirely that the provisions of the Act that dealt with illegal web activity included a proposal, which I and my party opposed, that could block websites even before they had done anything illegal, because they might possibly do something illegal in the future. It was a bit like the film “Minority Report” in which someone could be arrested because they might do something in the future. That is nonsense and must go, but if my hon. Friend looks closely at the elements of that Act on illegal file sharing, he will find that it is not true that the idea that someone is innocent until proved guilty is not there.

The staged approach in the legislation-we must have some sort of law to protect intellectual property-is going the right way. I disagree with my hon. Friend about that, but I entirely agree with him about the intercept modernisation programme. I am delighted that he raised it yesterday in the House with the Prime Minister. Many of us are very concerned, for the reasons that he eloquently gave, to think that the programme may still be going forward under the coalition Government. There are those of us who care about privacy and the freedoms of people in this country: the very people who have stood up against the growth in the number of CCTV cameras. It is ludicrous that we have 1% of the entire world’s population and 20% of its CCTV cameras. Is any other evidence needed of the way Big Brother is beginning to operate? We have rolled back some of that effect; we rolled back ID cards and some of the other planned databases of the Labour Government. We must be on the ball in checking what the Government do about the intercept modernisation programme. I congratulate the hon. Member for Harlow on an important debate and desperately hope the Government will listen. I shall be listening particularly to my hon. Friend, the excellent Minister.