Sir Tim Berners-Lee has told the BBC that he would change his Internet provider if it tracked his activity on the Internet. 'I want to know if I look up a whole lot of books about some form of cancer that that's not going to get to my insurance company and I'm going to find my insurance premium is going to go up by 5% because they've figured I'm looking at those books,' he said.
Berners-Lee's influential voice is just the latest to join the chorus of protest against users' activity being tracked, analysed and used to target advertising. His voice has particular resonance because it is well-known that while others have made fortunes from Web-based businesses, he hasn't or wished to, instead seeing the Web as being for the greater good, available to everyone, free of charge.
Last week the Open Rights Group (ORG) in the UK called for more information about Phorm, a company which tracks web activity to target and create personalised adverts. BT, Virgin Media and Talk Talk in the UK have all said they will trial the system. More than 2,500 people have signed a petition presented to Downing Street, home of the UK's Prime Minister Gordon Brown, expressing concern about their possible threats to their privacy.
Deloitte's annual report by its technology, media and telecoms practice, published in January, predicted that online advertising's rapid growth will lead to the medium facing a 'barrage of obstacles' this year.
Last November Facebook attracted a huge amount of flak when it attempted to introduce an advertising system, Beacon, designed to exploit information about people's habits on and off the site so that personalised adverts could be served to them. More than 50,000 Facebook members signed an online petition objecting to Beacon being implemented without their permission in the space of nine days last November, forcing it to allow members to opt out.
Sir Tim stated that his data and web history belonged to him, saying, 'It's mine - you can't have it. If you want to use it for something, then you have to negotiate with me. I have to agree, I have to understand what I'm getting in return.'
The last point is the crunch point. The UK Government has drawn up guidelines that say such activities are legitimate if users have opted in, however there are worries that could put the onus on the user to take the proactive step of opting out. Talk Talk has said its customers would have to opt in to use Phorm, while BT and Virgin are yet to decide whether to go the opt in or opt out route.
Sir Tim said he supported an opt-in system; 'I think consumers rights in this are very important. We haven't seen the results of these systems being used.'
Curiously though, similar approaches on MySpace, owned by Rupert Murdoch's News International, which also first hit the headlines last November, has not generated a backlash - yet. MySpace's "˜hyper targeted' ads had a successful trial and beta phase in the US, boasting that click-through rates for targeted ads are 300% higher than for the others on its site. MySpace said it had signed up more than 50 advertisers to participate in the scheme including Procter & Gamble, Microsoft, Ford and Toyota. Last week, MySpace announced it would introduce hyper targeted ads to the UK web site.
The reasons for the lack of reaction are not clear. Possibly the implications haven't sunk in yet or perhaps MySpace members, who are typically younger than Facebook users (who also tend to use Facebook as a professional meeting place), simply don't care and view an invasion of their privacy as part of the deal, just like the rest of us accept advertising on TV. However, Berners-Lee thinks this is due to a lack of understanding of the implications and is a cause for concern. In his BBC interview, he urged social networking users to take care: 'Imagine that everything you are typing is being read by the person you are applying to for your first job. Imagine that it's all going to be seen by your parents and your grandparents and your grandchildren as well.'
He added, 'We should look out for snags in the future,' pointing to the way email had been swamped by spam as an example of how things could go wrong. 'Things can change so fast on the Internet.'