By Russ Shaw
A digital Magna Carta is required if we are to stand any chance of halting the Internet’s steady infringement of our right to privacy. That is the message from Tim Berners-Lee, the British computer scientist who invented the World Wide Web.
But if we want the Internet to live up to Tim Berners-Lee’s vision, it is up to the private sector to make it happen.
The agility that the web has given consumers means that establishing a relationship of trust between user and brand has become more valuable than ever.
Providing the privacy that consumers are increasingly demanding, however, is easier said than done. From the sunny slopes of Silicon Valley to London’s own Tech City, online entrepreneurs are constantly reinventing the way in which we do business. From marketing, to e-commerce, to data storage, the simple fact is that web-based industries are moving too fast for governments to keep up.
In many ways a ‘Magna Carta’ of Internet users’ rights is a great idea, realistically however it could be beyond the reach of government. Well intentioned they may be, but legislative forays into the world of the web such as the Prime Minister’s proposed filters on Internet pornography and the EU’s recent contemplation of a “right to be forgotten” have quickly proved themselves unworkable in practice. Ultimately, the apparatus of government is often too cumbersome to keep up with an industry moving as fast as tech.
As such, the burden of responsibility rests on the shoulders of the private sector, and the prize for those companies who treat customers’ information responsibly has never been clearer. The care that WhatsApp has taken in building up users’ trust in the brand is regarded by many to have been a crucial contributing factor in its $19bn (£11.4bn) price tag.
Similarly Skype, of which I was vice president before founding Tech London Advocates, has gone to enormous lengths to securely encrypt its users’ communications, something which has proved central to the provider’s ongoing success to its millions and millions of users around the world.
The cost of ignoring privacy concerns could be equally high. The way in which Facebook provides advertisers with access to user data prompted the Electronic Privacy Information Centre in San Francisco to appeal to the Federal Trade Commission to halt its acquisition of WhatsApp. Facebook is very responsible, but this may have gone too far for many users.
Equally, the revelations about the National Security Agency’s PRISM surveillance program could have a huge impact upon the US tech market, according to Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer. Mayer has warned that the burgeoning cloud computing industry may slip through the fingers of the US market if customers lose faith a company’s ability to safeguard privacy.
So high are the commercial stakes of privacy that companies are going to great—and often expensive—lengths to be seen to disclose and legally challenge government data requests. Twitter, for example, not only publishes extensive transparency reports on data requested by government, but also actually informs individual users (where legal) if their data has been requested.
It would be a mistake to see Berners-Lee’s message of greater commitment to protecting the privacy of Internet users as anti-business. In fact, for British business, being receptive to the warnings of the Web’s inventor could be the key to mounting a challenge to West Coast dominance of the industry.
UK tech is already at the forefront of the economy’s post-recession resurgence. Employment has risen by 16.1pc in the tech sector compared to 0.3pc overall, while in London, 27 per cent of all job growth has been in the tech sector.
In addition, the UK’s tech sector is set to take a central role at this summer’s International Festival for Business, an initiative aiming to attract more than £100 million of direct investment into the British economy and for which I myself am an ambassador.
With a week-long program of events designed to galvanise the UK’s fast growing tech sector, the Festival will shine a spotlight on British creativity and innovation and provide a platform to propel the next digital disruptor.
The stage is set for the next WhatsApp to be a British company. But if that’s going to happen, it is crucial that the UK tech sector take heed of the father of the World Wide Web.
Professional networking company ProFinda and Essentia Analytics, which makes software to help investors make better decisions, are both examples of British tech start-ups that are setting a gold-standard in protecting the privacy of their customers’ data.
If UK start-ups can back up the vibrant wave of creativity and innovation they have already shown with the foresight to build their brands around integrity and respect for the rights of users, their success is assured.