The Internet’s Dad defends user data

by Shane Dillon

I HAD written a neat piece about US President Donald Trump’s recent attacks on internet privacy with worrying global implications (see below), but when Tim Berners-Lee (AKA ‘the guy who invented the internet’, AKA The Internet’s Dad) weighed in on the move with a suitably Trumpian soundbyte (“disgusting”), well, a late night rewrite was the least I could do.

But first, some backstory, and an insight into what has brought a true Titan of technology into the fray …

As part of his ongoing whirlwind of attacks on everything, President Trump has set his sights on internet users’ browsing history, clearing the way for ISPs (internet service providers) to sell their browsing history.

After all, whether you’re searching for a new job, a hotel, medicine or whatever, there’s a potentially useful commercial aspect to at least some of that data – an aspect which has previously been largely reigned in by a number of checks and balances by governments and watchdogs around the world, with most tending to try to balance consumer and individual privacy rights against other matters.

Not so in the States any more, where President Trump has now cleared the way for ISPs to turn their users’ data into commercially viable data – needless to say, if your ISP suddenly starts actively recording everything you see and do on the internet, you’re creating a perfect profile of who you are, what you like, want, think and feel.

That’s not to say that internet users all around the world will now start unwittingly creating perfect dossiers of info for The Man and shadowy corporations to exploit, but the move to allow such data mining sets a worrying precedent, potentially creating a domino line of tumbling user rights and a slow whittling away of civil liberties around the world.

In this context, it’s no wonder that The Internet’s Dad is so annoyed about the move.

Speaking about the internet for many years, Berners-Lee has always been a tireless advocate of the positive change for humanity as a whole than the internet, and free access to information, can make.

To see users then potentially even further turned into a commodity, opening up a can of worms about the loss of privacy – well, it’s no wonder Berners-Lee thinks it’s a terrible move, and one to oppose.

Speaking to The Guardian, Berners-Lee discussed a number of potential pitfalls that an increased commercial exploitation of users could engender, just part of his worries about the drift of certain aspects of the Internet in recent years.

He said: “There are things that people do on the web that reveal absolutely everything, more about them than they know themselves sometimes.

“Because so much if what we do in our lives that actually goes through those left-clicks, it can be ridiculously revealing.

“You have the right to go to a doctor in privacy where it’s just between you and the doctor. And similarly you have to be able to go to the web. Privacy, a core American value, is not a partisan thing.”

Still, all is not lost for consumers – in America, at least, as just because the ISPs have been given a green light to flog user data doesn’t mean that they will.

Verizon AT&T, and Comcast – big players in the US – have said that they won’t sell customers’ individual browsing data, despite the green light to do so.

If telecoms giants settle into a gentlemen’s agreement – particularly under public and political pressure to respect user wishes about privacy and data – then all is not lost.

Ultimately, Irish, US and global internet users alike should take a greater interest in such battles and tussles for the internet’s soul – not least as The Internet’s Dad won’t always be there to try and keep things in order …

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