The (not so) Secret People Speak Up

There is an ominous G.K. Chesterton poem which has the penultimate line, “we are the people of England; and we have not spoken yet.” Amid a thicket of nationalistic sentiment, it describes the silent majority who are taken for granted by the ruling classes on whose behalf they fight and die.

If Chesterton’s people did find voice, it would probably be as a Daily Mail leader (although since that newspaper claims to speak for “the people of England, that never have spoken yet”, by speaking for them, it can not be of them). It is the unspoken views of this majority that unsettle many politicians.

It also appears to have unsettled BT, which seems to have listened to the voice of the secret people. By deciding to abandon Phorm in the face of objections from privacy campaigners, it could be setting an important precedent – that just because information is available, useful and (arguably) legal, does not mean it should be put to use.

The moment we set out on the Internet, we are presumed to lose all anonymity and right to privacy. Yet you can go to any shop in the land and make a purchase without ever needing to be identified. Doing the same thing online is impossible.

That is a simple fact of digital life. But the clickstream of data generated by our paths across the connected world does not have to be harvested, analysed and used to adapt content and advertising. Not without stronger protection, aggregation to larger group level as standard, and with the option to interact without such identification.

Representative bodies like the Internet Advertising Bureau argue that the use of data in this way gives consumers a better online experience and more relevant advertising and content. Ask consumers what they go online for and it is not these things. In fact, commercial goals are some way down the hierarchy of digital purposes.

Social networks have shown that there is a latent desire for sharing views, following the famous, or simply showing off. The secret people quite enjoy a more public life. This is not the same as personal information being gathered without their knowledge.A new balance needs to be struck between privacy and online privileges. As Chesterton wrote, “Smile at us, pay us, pass us. But do not quite forget.”

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