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Big business objects to privacy protection rules

A business lobby led by internet advertisers and search engines has denounced a political initiative that would curb their efforts to capture people on database profiles.

New rules to prevent industry and government mistreating people on the basis of their computer profiles will be put before the 47 countries that form the Council of Europe on 17 November.

Jorg Polakiawicz, head of law reform at the Council of Europe, said in an interview with THINQ that industry had objected to these powers.

"What is very difficult," said Polakiawicz, "is the balance between protecting privacy and on the other hand very strong lobbying of the private sector, who see all these obligations to inform individuals as burdensome and costly. It's not an easy relationship with the private sector."

The rules would extend people's data protection rights beyond the mere power to demand they be told if someone kept a profile of them on a database, and to see its content. They would introduce a means for people to see what algorithms were used to create their profiles, and to see what consequences would follow from their profile's use.

Polakiawicz said the rules were necessary to govern all internet data with the same regulation that already restricts the use of data from intercepted emails.

"In the end a profile can say more about your personality, your habits, your weaknesses probably, than the content of emails you write.

"If they see which websites you visited, which frequency and which trace you left, which articles you read - all these create such a powerful personality profile which says more about you probably than the things you write," said Polakiawicz.

The Council was concerned with preventing people from being discriminated against on the basis of a profile, or mistreated on the basis of an erroneous profile. It was also concerned that unregulated profiles would create such a debilitating sense of being watched that it would stop democratic society from functioning properly.

Chris Kuner, who represented the International Chamber of Commerce as an observer of the political process that created the rules, said: "We don't have a terribly favourable view of the final product.

"We felt this was painting profiling as something very sinister," he said. "When the fact that there's a lot of free content on the internet results from the possibility to tailor marketing to individual interests."

Businesses were also unhappy that it had been admitted into the political process only late, said Kuner. The Council had taken the unprecedented step of consulting industry over the draft rules. But arms-length consultation was not enough for industry, which has been pressing international institutions to adopt the multi-stakeholder system by which it governs the internet through ICANN, in which engineers, businesses, politicians, police and pretty much anyone else can have a place at the table when rules are drafted.

Dr David Murakami Wood, who holds the Canadian Research Chair in Surveillance Studies, said companies didn't want to reveal their profiling algorithms because they were so feeble.

"Revelations would simply be embarrassing either because they are crude or actively discriminatory, racist etc," said Wood in an email.

"They really don't know how they work or what exactly they do. I have talked to developers who have said things like, 'Well, we wrote this code and it did something we didn't expect. We just thought this was cool and kept it in as a feature'," he added.

The European Privacy Information Centre said in the Council's consultation that companies and governments were "amassing troves of personal information on citizens" that created a potential for inaccuracy and misuse. Yahoo used the consultation to make the case for self-regulation.