Leading article: The right to online privacy

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The Independent Online

Most tools – be they a crowbar, a CCTV camera or a car – can be used for good or ill. The internet is no exception. It is disturbing, then, to learn that the worldwide web, which once promised a democratisation of the media, offering many new voices, stories and perspectives, has produced the opposite. An eminent US media studies group has shown that the news agenda has, in fact, narrowed. Just two subjects – the war in Iraq and the 2008 US presidential election campaign – constituted more than a quarter of the stories in US newspapers, on television and online last year, it found. Strip out Iraq, Iran and Pakistan and news from the rest of the world makes up less than 6 per cent of the American news. And much of the news on the rest of the web is merely a repackaging of these sources.

Perhaps more disturbingly, the internet is posing a major new threat to privacy. In part this is, as the father of the web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, pointed out yesterday, due to our own carelessness. We should remember that everything we upload through social networking sites will remain there indefinitely to be read by potential employers and by our grandchildren.

But he raised a more worrying spectre. The technology now exists which would enable an insurance company to increase the premiums of someone who had used the web to look up a lot of information about cancer. This is not a distant prospect. Behavioural advertising, as it is known, is what was behind the Beacon system recently introduced by Facebook. It sends ads to users after tracking their web-surfing trail. The company was forced to change the way Beacon operates after an uproar from customers.

Britain's three biggest internet service providers – BT, Virgin Media and TalkTalk, who have more than 10 million customers – have recently signed agreements with a company called Phorm which supplies a similar system to provide "personalised advertisements". Firms which use this, which include the Guardian newspaper and the social networking site MySpace, get a better per-click payment than with other services. There is a lot of money to be made here. It is estimated that BT alone could make $167m (£83m) a year from the new system.

In the wrong hands this kind of technology could pose serious risks to individuals' privacy. British internet providers are still considering whether users should opt in or opt out of the Phorm service, which sells itself as an improved internet security device. The Home Office has drawn up guidance suggesting that web-tracking should be legal so long as customers have given their consent. This is not good enough, since providers can sneak this approval into the small print of their terms of service updates. It is vital that consumers' right to privacy is protected. Service deals should be transparent. Users should not be forced constantly to consider the secondary implications of going to any given website.