Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web, put privacy into the spotlight last week when he warned social networkers that everything they post online might be read by friends and relatives, present and future.
Sir Tim’s was the latest high- profile warning over invasions of privacy, particularly on the web. As going online has become part of everyday life there has been an associated rise in campaigns and lobbying by “privacy activists”, who harry any business they believe is cavalier with personal details.
So far, the two sides have been arch-enemies. However, as consumer privacy and how to handle it becomes an increasingly hot issue for companies, some are contemplating a truce and inviting activists into the boardroom to advise on strategy.
There is a tradition of nongovernmental organisations and the corporate world pooling some of their expertise: Greenpeace has entered alliances with a number of multinationals, for instance.
Simon Davies, of pressure group Privacy International, says: “We have become a bit burned out from constantly fighting. We could do a lot more with that energy.”
Microsoft, Facebook and AOL are some of the companies now working with the consultancy arm of Privacy International, 80/20 Thinking, to iron out problems with their data protection policies. For Microsoft, engagement such as this represents a change in attitude. Although the company says it has always been committed to protecting privacy, it has not always been receptive to suggestions by activists.
About 18 months ago, Microsoft launched the controversial Windows Genuine Advantage tool, a piece of software that checks computer systems to see if users are operating genuine, licensed software. Privacy International had previously raised concerns with Microsoft and said the public would see the new software as spyware.
“We predicted the headlines Microsoft would get, but they went ahead,” says Mr Davies.
The move is a step-change for the activists too. “After so many years kicking at all these institutions, it is almost a genetic change to understand their problems. It is a steep learning curve for us,” says Mr Davies.
The collaboration has at times proved controversial. Earlier this year, only six weeks after it was founded, 80/20 Thinking entered a firestorm when it agreed to perform a privacy audit on Phorm, an Aim-listed company, which is trying to create a controversial advertising platform that tracks internet customers’ web history.
There was confusion over whether 80/20 Thinking or Privacy International had endorsed the venture, and Mr Davies was receiving many angry e-mails a day from Privacy International supporters, some accusing him of selling out. “It was a baptism of fire. We’ve now learned we have to be very clear about whether it is 80/20 or Privacy International acting. We have added a clause to our contract to say that if there is any intention to use Privacy International’s name misleadingly, we will walk out immediately,” he says.
He also reveals that he has faced some criticism for working with companies in this way, as some Privacy International supporters Nicholas Bohm, general counsel at the Foundation for Information Policy Research, a UK internet think-tank, says: “It could give rise to some awkwardness, because a commercial organisation such as 80/20 Thinking would work to answer some very specific questions, but may be portrayed as having blessed the whole thing.”
But Mr Davies remains committed to “the principle that engagement is better than non-engagement – even though I’ve lost most of my hair over this now”.
A realisation that collaboration might be more fruitful than conflict came in 2006, after Privacy International gave Ebay a roasting for not allowing customers to close their accounts. Scott Shipman from Ebay’s legal team asked the activist group to work with Ebay engineers to fix the problem.
Privacy International maintains a dialogue with Ebay. Mr Shipman says: “I think we both have learned that it is more productive to work together to improve privacy practices, in a co-ordinated fashion. We consult regularly and keep each other up to date on internal and external privacy happenings.”
Mr Davies says working with companies leaves the pressure group more time to spend on issues such as privacy concerns in India and China.
But whether working with activists benefits companies remains to be seen. Engaging 80/20 Thinking appears, if anything, to have backfired on Phorm. Its shares have lost a third of their value as the privacy debate has raged on.
Phorm, a new advertising platform, recently hired both Ernst and Young and 80/20 Thinking to audit its privacy policies. But despite getting approval from both, Phorm still encountered heavy criticism, especially on internet blogs, over collecting information for targeted advertising. The shares lost a third of their value as fears over privacy emerged. But Kent Ertugrul, Phorm chief executive, defends the exercise. The furore, he says, “underscores the need to reassure people on what we are doing. This is an ongoing dialogue, building a reputation for transparency”. He will continue inviting other privacy groups to inspect the company’s code and working methods to reassure them, he says.
Some companies remain unconvinced. Google still has an adverserial relationship with Privacy International, which savaged the search engine company in a report last summer, calling it “hostile to privacy”.
Mr Davies says Google has been reluctant to work with it since then. Google is understood to have declined a recent offer by 80/20 Thinking to visit Google’s Mountain View offices to discuss issues. “Google is not going to change unless it is kicked. But then Microsoft admitted that it needed to be kicked to change,” Mr Davies says. “There is definitely a mood change now, and we have only just started on the thin edge of the wedge.”