'Big Brother' state comes under fire as European Commission launches inquiry into secret surveillance of web users European courts to scrutinise UK's internet privacy laws
Britain's failure to protect its citizens from secret surveillance on the internet is to be investigated by the European Commission.
The move will fuel claims that Britain is sliding towards a Big Brother state and could end with the Government being forced to defend its policy on internet privacy in front of judges in Europe.
The legal action is being brought over the use of controversial behavioural advertising services which were tested on BT's internet customers without their consent.
Yesterday, the EU said it wanted "clear consent" from internet users that their private data was being used to gather commercial information about their web shopping habits.
Under the programme, the UK-listed company Phorm has developed technology that allows internet service providers (ISPs) to track what their users are doing online. ISPs can then sell that information to media companies and advertisers, who can use it to place more relevant advertisements on websites the user subsequently visits. The EU has accused Britain of turning a blind eye to the growth in this kind of internet marketing.
Yesterday, the EU telecoms commissioner, Viviane Reding, said: "I call on the UK authorities to change their national laws and ensure that national authorities are duly empowered and have proper sanctions at their disposal to enforce EU legislation."
Last year, BT tested the Phorm technology to track its customer's internet searches without their knowledge, provoking complaints from users and from UK members of the European Parliament.
Because it is considered lawful to intercept data when there is "reasonable grounds for believing" there is consent, the issue falls outside the UK's wiretapping laws. Linda Weatherhead of Consumer Focus said: "While phone tapping is clearly illegal and unacceptable, it seems that spying on the digital communications and activity is not." Richard Clayton, treasurer of the Foundation for Information Policy Research (FIPR) - which described Phorm as "illegal" last year - said: "The laws are fit for purpose, but it seems that Whitehall have misunderstood their own laws." He said that users at both ends need to have consented to the system, which is not the case here and so contravenes the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act from 2000.
The Commission is also critical of the Government's implementation of the European electronic privacy and personal data protection rules. They state that EU countries must ensure the confidentiality of communications by banning the interception and surveillance of internet users without their consent.
Ms Reding said: "We have been following the Phorm case for some time and have concluded that there are problems in the way the UK has implemented parts of EU rules on the confidentially of communications."
She added that the enforcement of the laws "should allow the UK to respond more vigorously to new challenges of e-privacy and personal data protection such as those that have arisen in the Phorm case. It should also help reassure UK consumers about their privacy and data protection while surfing the internet."
The EU's intervention was welcomed by privacy campaigners. The Open Rights Group recently wrote to some of the world's biggest websites including Google, Yahoo and Facebook, asking them to block Phorm. Its executive director, Jim Killock, said yesterday: "There are big legal questions surrounding BT's use of Phorm, so we welcome the EU taking the Government to task. …