Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee warns against third-party internet snooping | Technology | guardian.co.uk
Web inventor warns against third-party internet snooping
Sir Tim Berners-Lee speaks out against collection of users' data by commercial companies
Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the world wide web, today warned MPs and peers that they should not allow third parties, including commercial companies, to snoop on people's internet browsing.
"We use the internet without a thought that a third party would know what we have just clicked on," Berners-Lee said.
"Yet the URLs [webpages] people use reveal a huge amount about their lives, loves, hates and fears. This is extremely sensitive information.
"People use the web in a crisis, when wondering whether they have a sexually transmitted disease, or cancer, when wondering if they are homosexual and whether to talk about it … to discuss political views."
He said people "use the internet to inform ourselves as voters in a democracy", adding: "We use the internet to decide what is true and what is not.
"We use the internet for healthcare and social interaction."
He said people would consider using the web in a crisis in a different light if they knew they were being monitored and the data would be shared with a third party such as an advertising company.
"There will be a huge commercial pressure to release this data," he said. "The principle should be that it is not to be collected in the first place."
His remarks at a Westminster roundtable discussion about the commercial use of data on the internet followed trials by BT and a company called Phorm of the monitoring of 30,000 people's internet use in order to deliver targeted advertisements based on users' search interests.
The recent development of behaviour-targeted advertising has alarmed privacy campaigners.
In its simplest form, a single website, such as the online retailer Amazon, will keep a record of which pages a user has visited and show them relevant advertisements the next time they visit.
But privacy concerns arise when records of web activity are shared or sold to other commerical third parties, particularly if they involve a popular search engine such as Google, which stores millions of users' searches.
Lady Miller, the Liberal Democrat peer who convened the meeting, said the age of innocence on the internet was over.
"We must come to terms with the cynical reality that, unless parliament does something about it, business will ride roughshod with internet users' data," she said.
"Our privacy laws are outmoded and unco-ordinated, completely unsuited to the competitive commercial environment that is developing on the internet."
She said the internet was developing so quickly that it was bound to be seen as a goldmine by companies such as Phorm, Google and Microsoft, which she claimed were waiting to get their hands on data to sell it to the highest bidder.
Berners-Lee said personal users could turn to encrypted surfing as a way of protecting their privacy, but warned this would make the process more expensive and slow down the user's computer.
He said there were considerable risks of abuse of such histories of personal internet use, including the selling of personal profiles, using it to determine job applications and insurance premiums, and the danger of criminal predators choosing, stalking and targeting victims.
"The power of this information is so great that the commercial incentive for companies or individuals to misuse it will be huge," he said. "It is absolutely essential to have absolute clarity that it is illegal."
He was backed by Dame Wendy Hall, a Southampton University professor of computer science, who appealed to politicians to protect the privacy of people's digital lives and take the issue seriously.
"There are lots of good reasons why companies and government want access to our data but there are huge downsides to that," she said.
"This debate is about our digital lives. It is about who we are, what we are interested in and what is private to us."