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Is there a future for a privacy-friendly internet?

Fri, 12 Apr 2013

A privacy-friendly internet might be possible in the future according to an academic from the University of East Anglia.

Speaking at a conference today, Dr Paul Bernal will paint a picture of what a privacy-friendly internet might look like in practice and put forward a series of internet privacy rights – rights that are both theoretical and achievable – and look at how the implementation of those might impact upon the internet.

It follows the proposal of ideas such as the ‘right to be forgotten’ and of a ‘do not track’ system with tracking off by default. Both have been attacked as unworkable and likely to ‘destroy’ the internet – the former by undermining free speech, the latter by making the economic model that supports the ‘free’ internet unsustainable.

A lecturer at UEA’s Law School, Dr Bernal’s research areas include internet privacy and data protection, social networking and online identity.

“It seems that almost every time measures are proposed to preserve individuals’ privacy against intrusive or surveillance technologies or activities that they are met with two swift responses,” he said. “Industry bodies, their supporters and advocates for laissez-fair ideologies shout out that the core internet values will be undermined, and that the internet will be destroyed, while others, proclaiming themselves to be pragmatists, state that it is far too late to do anything in practice, or that the idea is simply unworkable.

“The upshot of these kinds of argument is that, ultimately, a ‘privacy friendly’ internet is impossible, but I’m suggesting that that it is not necessarily true.”

The rights Dr Bernal puts forward include:
• A right to roam the internet with privacy
• A right to monitor those monitoring us
• A right to delete personal data
• A right to identity, comprising rights to create, assert and protect that identity
• Rights to anonymity and pseudonymity

Dr Bernal will outline how businesses might function within a privacy-friendly internet and proposes a series of possible new business models, including an account of search and navigation mechanisms, social networking platforms and online retail activities which embed privacy norms and values.

“Crucially, this privacy-friendly environment does not absolve governments of their regulatory responsibilities,” said Dr Bernal. “I aim to shed some light on the governance challenges for governments and their role in designing legal mechanisms that not only overcome the shortcomings in the current privacy framework but paves the way for creating mechanisms that incentivise industry to regard privacy respecting values as a legitimate business goal.

“There are some signs suggesting that people might be beginning to both want a privacy-friendly future and to be willing to make personal decisions to help bring it about.”

Dr Bernal will conclude with an assessment of how such a future might come about – and also anticipates some serious and significant barriers to the creation of a privacy-friendly internet, in particular the vested interests of both industry and government in blocking some of its implications.

Dr Bernal presents his research, entitled A privacy-friendly future?, at the 28th annual British and Irish Law, Education and Technology Association (BILETA) conference, taking place at the Liverpool Law School, University of Liverpool.
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