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Privacy or not?

August 2004

I like my privacy, and I don’t like being asked for needless personal information when I am registering on a website, especially if I don’t know what they will do with it.

Perhaps I am too sensitive. After all, my address is not a secret, and I am in the phone book.  I’m not trying to hide, so I suppose I can’t complain too much if people find me.   It’s just that most of my personal information is simply nobody else’s damned business, and if they don’t need to know it I don’t see why I should tell them.

So what is private on the Internet? Not much, actually. Anything you send passes through many different electronic hands, and all of them can take a look and keep a copy, if they can be bothered.  We would never know.

All we can do is ask the websites that want our details what they will do with them.  Most (though not all) publish a “Privacy Policy” in which they explain how they will treat what you’ve told them.  Looking through a few of these can be instructive.

As ever, how we are dealt with depends very much on who is dealing with us. Respectable companies have respectable business practices. The best Privacy Policies declare that all your information will remain confidential, unless you give permission for something different.  For example, the BBC policy ( explains very carefully what they do with any information gathered; so do other popular sites like and  So far so good.

It then begins to get a bit murkier.  The mail order firm says that while they will never divulge an email address, they will pass on names and addresses “to companies whose products we think may interest you”.  You can ask them not to, but how would you know? Another big mail order company,, is even less forthcoming; they say only that their policy adheres to some data protection law or other. So we are none the wiser.

But does any of this matter?  In my view, not too much. If I deal with decent companies, I will probably be well treated. Also, there is something of a tightrope to be walked between protecting privacy and freedom of information, and I don’t think it does to be too precious about either.

In fact, I think we should speak sternly to those that are, as they may do more harm than good.  For example, BT, the largest UK Internet provider, recently announced that they are joining the fight against child pornography by restricting access to such muck through their own systems.

They will do this by blocking access to sites that the Internet Watch Foundation ( judges are pornographic. The sites will still be out there (most of them are based abroad, so we can’t touch them) it’s just that you won’t be able to look at them if you use BT as your ISP.  Instead you will get an error message as if the page were unavailable. They will record the attempt, but not who did it.

This announcement caused the moral outrage brigade to rear up on their hind legs and start whinnying about invasion of privacy, freedom of information and the thin ends of wedges. They mutter about censorship and oppression, and compare it to the Chinese blocking dissent websites.

This is, of course, rubbish.  There is a world of difference between a private company like BT deciding what it will allow on its system, and a Government enforcing such restrictions.

Being an ISP is a form of publishing, and it does no harm to encourage them to take some responsibility for what they publish.