Christine Jardine on how a liking for curly fries can influence the ads you see

The Data Protection Bill is going through the House of Commons at the moment. Christine Jardine and Ed Davey were leading for the Liberal Democrats.

The best speeches in the Commons are those where rather than stick to their carefully prepared and researched notes, the MP gets incensed by the twaddle being spouted by the other side and just goes for them.

Christine had intended to concentrate on personal data, but the former journalist was so annoyed by the Tories’ abandonment of Leveson 2 and their lame justifications thereof that she just went for them. She understands perfectly well that it is possible to do both good investigative journalism and follow good practice.

She then touched on how use of our personal data impacts on us. I’m slightly alarmed by what she said because I loathe and detest curly fries, yet, apparently, those who like them apparently have higher IQs and, if they express a preference for them could end up with being bombarded with adverts for MENSA. She used this and a deeply personal one to illustrate the extent to which our innocently expressed preferences can be used.

Here’s the whole speech.

It is fair to say that my party broadly supports much of this Bill, which is a vital component in our continued and smooth co-operation with the EU, should Brexit go ahead, but that support is not without qualification, which I shall come to shortly. As an EU member, we are assumed to be compliant with the requirements of the Union, but as a third party we will be required to demonstrate a suitable standard of protections. Failure to do this would jeopardise the co-operation that even the most zealous Brexiteers, I should imagine, want to maintain in defence and security.

The Data Protection Bill and the general data protection regulation bring existing best practice into law. This is not an onerous burden; it is a natural progression for information rights in the digital age. However, we have reservations about some aspects that we will discuss later. My right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey) intends to speak about the proposed immigration exemptions. I had ​intended to concentrate on areas that deal with our personal data and the help that industry and charity organisations will need to cope with this regulation, but as the debate has progressed, I have become increasingly concerned about the Government’s intention to overthrow the amendment by the House of Lords. The Data Protection Bill is an important vehicle through which to bring forward recommendations from the Leveson inquiry, as this House promised to do. Data processing for investigative journalism purposes must strike a balance between press freedom and the individual’s right to privacy.

As a journalist, I value freedom of speech and freedom of the press as much as any other person. As a journalist, I was always impressed by and proud of colleagues who uncovered miscarriages of justice, political corruption or malpractice in India, for example. The freedom of the press to scrutinise and hold to account those in power—as the hon. Member for Dudley South said, the relationship between journalists and politicians should not be an easy one—is vital in a democracy. It must not, however, be at the cost of the individual—to their privacy in times of grief or hardship, to their hard-won personal and professional reputations—or mean chasing them when they have done nothing wrong other than perhaps disagree with the stance of a newspaper. That cannot be the way.

Newspapers in this country are not free of regulation. Broadcasting has to apply the standards set by Ofcom. Newspapers have to abide by the law of libel, contempt of court and the criminal code. All those things are necessary, but in an increasingly digital age it is necessary to ensure that all publications abide by data protection regulations. It is more than 20 years since Calcutt warned the press that they were drinking in the last chance saloon. Well, they have had their drink and frankly they have been thrown out. The Press Council failed, the Press Complaints Commission failed, and this House promised to bring forward a statutorily underpinned body. Self-regulation with statutory underpinning—it is good enough for every other industry, it is good enough for the Law Society, so why are we not prepared to follow through for the press? The vast majority of journalists are honourable. As the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) said, we are talking about a small minority, but that small minority can do immense damage to individual’s lives—we saw it with the McCanns, with Milly Dowler and with the Hillsborough inquiry—and it is not good enough for us to say they are doing a good enough job; they patently are not, which is why I hope the House will uphold the amendments passed in the other place.

I turn now to what I had intended to speak about: the rights of individuals and the problem many have in talking about data and regulation. It sounds like a technical issue—something that does not affect them directly in their everyday lives. Algorithms are a mystery that many of us have no desire to investigate, never mind solve, yet they are a major influence in our increasingly technology-driven and social media-driven lives. Data harvesting can sneak into every corner of our existence, undertaken by public and private organisations—those we deal with and many that just want to deal with us, or use what they know about us. The information we provide tells them how to sell us everything from cars and mortgages to life insurance and funerals. As more and more information about our daily lives is digitally recorded, ​it is important that individuals have more control. With the passing of the Bill we should all be able to rest assured that the information is being used both ethically and responsibly, including by the national and regional press, and that we have access to ensure that it is accurate, whether it is available to individuals or public or private bodies.

We should take into account that the information we provide can be used to infer information we have not given. For example, I am reliably informed that people who like curly fries are more likely to have high IQs. If someone was to pass on that culinary preference with their data, floods of adverts aimed at highly intelligent curly fries fans would be likely to follow. Occasionally, of course, it can all go wrong. Just after suffering a recent bereavement, I was in touch with a nationally known undertaker. Immediately afterwards, I was bombarded with adverts about planning for my own funeral, which is not really what anyone in that position wants. That is just an illustration of why it is important to the public that they have the right to view and correct or delete their own personal data, as laid out in the Bill. None of us wants false information out there about us that could prejudice decisions or jeopardise our security.

That, surely, is particularly important in relation to the many young people—a significant number of them children—who are regularly online. Ofcom estimates that 99% of under-16s are online for nearly 21 hours a week. The Children’s Society and YoungMinds surveyed more than 1,000 young people about their online experiences, both generally and more specifically with regard to cyber-bullying, and found that 61% of the under-18s who were surveyed had had their first experience of social media before the age of 13.

In setting the age of consent, it is important to be realistic about the lives of young people. Sixteen may not be an appropriate age of consent, or a realistic reflection of a situation in which practice allows only over-13s to have an account, but with no age verification. Young people need to learn their data and privacy rights much earlier, and that should be a mandatory part of their personal, social, health and economic education at school.

I believe that parents should take more responsibility, but I think that the answer is to educate the children themselves and make them aware of the danger.

It will be important for the Government to support those who will feel extra strain as a result of the Bill, such as small and medium-sized enterprises and, indeed, the Information Commissioner’s Office itself. The ICO will have a much more proactive role in policing data protection matters, and will be required to produce masses of guidance both now and after May. The office must be properly resourced in order to do its important job. There should also be targeted support for charities.​

Many sectors—manufacturing, retail, health, information technology and financial services—are anxious for the free flow of data between ourselves and the European Union to continue with minimum disruption post-Brexit. In an increasingly digital economy and society, that is critical for both our international trade and the protection of our rights of privacy. We must get this legislation right, and, as I said earlier, I believe that that will mean upholding the amendments passed in the other place.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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2 Comments

  • Richard Underhill 7th Mar '18 - 8:17am

    The Sunday Times has a reputation as a campaigning newspaper, some of it prior to Rupert Murdoch’s involvement. For instance the thalidomide scandal was hugely important. It is currently denying improper behaviour alleged by a private investigator.

  • The Sunday Times of the Thomson era (edited by Harold Evans – formerly of the once Liberal Northern Echo – for over twenty years from the early sixties) – was a very different animal to the Murdoch paper we see now. It was a truly independent paper, with, as you say, a great campaigning record by its Insight team). Now it is the creature of its owner.

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