David Prosser: Big brother is not such a threat just yet


Outlook Privacy campaigners may not like the ruling, but the Office of Fair Trading's announcement yesterday that self-regulation remains the best way forward for the "behavioural advertising" industry was the right one.

There is no denying that this is a technology that worries a great number of people. The idea that large corporations have access to considerable amounts of data about their customers has always been controversial. But in the internet world, where companies can monitor every keyboard stroke you make while online, the privacy arguments are even stronger – particularly when the point of such snooping is to give commercial organisations the opportunity to target advertising at you very personally and specifically.

Still, there is already a code of conduct in place, operated by the Internet Advertising Bureau, to police the way such technology is used. Broadly speaking, it works much like the system that protects people who don't want to receive unsolicited marketing material. A company that wants to collect data about how you use the internet has to give you the opportunity to opt out of its reach.

In addition, the most sophisticated technologies, such as those pioneered by Phorm, are more robustly policed and – in the UK, at least – not personalised. Nor has there yet been any evidence of targeted pricing, one worry about this technology, where companies might charge certain people more if they have evidence these customers would be likely to accept higher prices.

It's easy to get worked up about the "big brother" society, but the OFT's own research suggests this is an industry worth less than £100m a year currently. And more than two-thirds of the consumers it spoke to said they either didn't particularly mind the idea of behavioural advertising or even that they liked it.

There are no doubt improvements to be made to the self-regulation system – the OFT suggested several yesterday – as the industry develops. But full-scale regulation is not yet necessary. It may become so, but let's not introduce more red tape just to pacify a very vocal campaign group.

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