The disparity in powers between the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and Ofcom has once again been highlighted after the latter was able to fine BT £800,000 for the late launch of a text-to-speech service – far in excess of anything the ICO can issue for data loss incidents.
The ICO can issue fines to a maximum of £500,000 for breaches of the Data Protection Act – breaches that often result in sensitive personal information being lost or stolen, causing huge distress for those concerned.
However, Ofcom – which in 2013 fined TalkTalk £750,000 for some nuisance calls to customers – has been able to issue a far larger fine to BT for the late launch of the Next Generation Text Service (NTGS).
The NTGS helps people with hearing or speech impediments to either type what they want to say and have it relayed to the person on the other end, or, if hard of hearing, to have what someone says to them translated to text to read on screen.
Ofcom issued the fine because BT was five months late in launching the service, putting it live in October, when it was slated for an 18 April launch.
BT explained that the delay was caused by a problem with the sound quality of emergency calls, something that came to light at a late stage of the development process.
Claudio Pollack, Ofcom’s consumer and content group director, said the size of the fine showed how seriously the organisation took this failure.
“The size of the penalty imposed on BT reflects the importance of providing an improved text relay service to its customers with hearing and speech impairments,” he said.
BT must pay the £800,000 penalty to Ofcom, which will then pass it on to HM Treasury.
In a statement BT apologised for the delay but said that since going live it was please to hear positive feedback from users.
“We’re sorry we had to postpone the full launch of the Next Generation Text service. This was because of a safety issue with the quality of emergency calls that could have put users at risk," it said.
"The service has been warmly welcomed by users. Hearing and speech impaired people can now make faster, more fluent phone calls using ordinary smartphones, tablets, laptops and PCs, as well as existing specialised terminals.”
While no one would disagree that providing such a service is important and that BT’s failings warranted some form of reprimand, the scale of the fine when set against the ICO’s powers once again shows the madness of the current data protection regime.
The only hope is that when the new European Data Protection Regulation comes into force – which looks increasingly likely – the proposal for data watchdogs to be able to fine firms a portion of their annual turnover will make it to the statute books.
This should make the financial penalties for data protection breaches far more terrifying to big businesses, making data protection a more important consideration, and giving the ICO the chance to issue fines that will really make people sit up and take notice.
If a human being represents a kilobyte of data, and a London bus a megabyte, what would you use to represent a gigabyte? Or a terabyte? Or even a zettabyte?
Any ideas? Well the answers, in corresponding order, are: The London Eye, the BT Tower and the entire continent of Europe. Well done if you said any of those.
Now, taking this unscientific scale to its extreme conclusion, what object or thing could represent the Internet of Things, and the unfathomably vast amounts of data it will generate? Any ideas? The answer is the universe.
This is the theory of Kevin Ashton (pictured below on the far left), the man who invented the phrase ‘The Internet of Things’. Ashton was speaking at an event at the BT Tower on Wednesday evening, attended by V3.
Ashton’s Scale of Data lacks any clear consistency, but the point is clear. The IoT is going to be huge. It is going to be so far beyond anything we have known that our entire understanding and concept of ‘data’ will become useless.
And this is not something that is going to happen, but already is happening. Ashton started with the idea of the mobile phone. These are networked devices that can be used to plot locations, track movements and gain insights.
The Ebola outbreak that ravaged western Africa was controlled by plotting the movement of people through their mobile phones, and working out their connections with other people, to enable officials to plot and then contain the disease.
Another example of the IoT that’s often cited is driverless cars. As vehicles are connected with all sorts of sensors it will enable them to drive themselves and transmit all this data for analysis. This idea is gaining momentum, and even the UK government has approved trials of driverless cars on UK roads.
Ashton pointed out that driverless cars already exist in commercial environments. The giant trucks used in bauxite mines in Western Australia, for example, now operate without drivers (pictured below).
“The self-driving car is already real,” said Ashton. “Five to 10 years from now, every car will have self-driving capability, whether you want it or not. We're 15 years away from cars without steering wheels being available.”
A final example Ashton cited was RFID, a technology he helped create, which is now used in supply chains across the world to track objects and generate data that can be used to make more informed decisions.
All of this was making the point that the IoT is already here and is only going to grow. This led Ashton to pose a final question.
“If you came here tonight thinking 'Is the IoT going to happen to me?’, well it is going to happen to you whether you like it or not. Is it going to be an opportunity or a threat: that’s your choice.”
Politicians, eh? The incoming digital economy and society commissioner for the European Commission, Günther Oettinger, has not even set up his office with a plant and a picture and already he's in hot water for ill-considered comments.
During a meeting earlier this week he said that celebrities were "dumb" for putting nude pictures of themselves online.
"If someone is dumb enough as a celebrity to take a nude photo of themselves and put it online, they surely can't expect us to protect them," said Oettinger. "I mean, stupidity is something you can not - or only partly - save people from."
This statement, blaming the victims of a breach of their privacy and showing a slight misunderstanding of the cloud, has been rounded on by digital activists who see it as clear proof that Oettinger is not the right man to take on such an important digital post.
Pirate Party MEP Julia Reda has posted a blog criticising Oettinger, noting that it is somewhat worrying - as V3 would agree - that someone set to be in charge of European digital policy has either a misguided moral stance on the issue or a worrying lack of understanding of technology - or both.
"The person applying to be in charge of shoring up trust in the internet so that Europeans do more business online just victim-blamed people whose personal data was accessed and spread without authorisation," she wrote.
"By picking this example to make that point despite lacking an understanding of the facts, by making a mockery of what he should recognise as a serious problem and by doing it in this aloof and insulting tone, Oettinger is seriously calling into question whether he is qualified for the job of shaping our digital society for the next five years."
The BBC reported that a spokesperson for Oettinger said he was trying to make a point about cloud security, although he denied the chance to apologise for the remark.
"Everybody has a right to privacy. The EU Commission wants to make cloud computing safer." A noble aim, sir. But perhaps we may be so bold as to suggest that starting this mission by siding with the victims of a theft rather than blaming them tends to help.
One thing is for sure, Neelie Kroes would never have said any of this.
The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has handed down a huge $7.4m fine to Verizon for failing to give new customers the ability to opt out of marketing calls from the company.
The FCC's scary-sounding Enforcement Bureau’s found that Verizon failed to notify approximately two million new customers on their first invoices or in welcome letters, of their privacy rights. This included how to opt out from having their personal information used in marketing campaigns.
The fine is a huge amount for something so, ultimately, trivial as to be rung a few times by sales reps from the company, but it underlines the vast disparity between the US's stance on data privacy and the UK's.
The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), which oversees issues of data protection and privacy in the UK, has come down hard on marketing firms in recent years, issuing fines of £45,000, £50,000 and £90,000 against companies that bombarded people with calls, despite being told to stop.
Comparing the two situations, the latter error seems the more egregious. While it may be annoying to not be told you have the right to opt out of marketing calls, to actively tell a company not to contact you and have them ignore that, seems so much worse.
Of course, it should be noted that the fines handed down by the ICO were against small to medium-sized companies, rather than a telecoms giant such as Verizon, and the FCC may have been making a point to other similarly sized companies of the seriousness of the situation.
Even so, though, a UK business giant could only face a fine of £500,000 from the ICO for any data or privacy error, so perhaps it's no wonder that, despite fines repeatedly being handed out by the watchdog, data breach incidents continue to happen.
Copyright law is a complicated beast, full of difficult clauses, mitigations and loopholes, all of which would make you think that many would avoid getting embroiled in the topic.
Yet one British photographer, so enraged by a ‘selfie’ taken on his camera by a dexterous macaque, felt the need to assert his claim to its copyright when the self-shot monkey picture appeared on Wikipedia (above).
Unfortunately for photographer David Slater, Wikipedia refused to pull the image denying that the copyright belonged to him or the snap-happy monkey. Cue the internet going ape over the story and attempting to out-do one another with simian-based puns.
Further adding to Slater's slew of bad luck, is a public draft of the third edition of the Compendium of US Copyright Office Practices, which declared that it will only grant copyright to works created directly by human beings.
This means the 'monkey selfie' effectively has no copyright and the internet has free reign over its use.
Forgetting that the world has much bigger problems to worry about, including global warming, war and economic despair, the US office went on to add that neither work created by plants, animals, or even ghosts – divine or otherwise.
“The Office will not register works produced by nature, animals, or plants. Likewise, the Office cannot register a work purportedly created by divine or supernatural beings, although the Office may register a work where the application or the deposit copy(ies) state that the work was inspired by a divine spirit,” stated the public draft.
Debating copyright law over a single shot of a smiling simian may seem like a gargantuan waste of time for all involved.
But regularly revised definitions of copyright law is becoming more important, particularly given the growth of user-generated content being posted online and to social media networks. What the monkeys make of all this, though, remains to be seen.
It's a riddle that has taxed some of the greatest minds on the planet: if a monkey takes a selfie on a camera, who owns the copyright?
This is the bizarre question that is currently dominating the headlines, as photographer David Slater – who saw his kit monkey-handled by a mischievous macaque – is claiming that he owns the photo. But Wikipedia disagrees.
Wikipedia editors keep uploading the photo of the monkey to the site, claiming it is in the public domain. "This file is in the public domain, because as the work of a non-human animal, it has no human author in whom copyright is vested," the site said.
Slater disagrees, and said that the fact the monkey took the photo is irrelevant as he had to do all the hard work.
“If the monkey took it, it owns copyright, not me, that’s their basic argument. What they don’t realise is that it needs a court to decide that,” he said, reported in The Telegraph.
“Some of their editors think it should be put back up. I’ve told them it's not public domain, they’ve got no right to say that its public domain. A monkey pressed the button, but I did all the setting up.”
Reports say it could cost Slater £10,000 to take Wikipedia to court. V3 thinks he should perhaps seek a kangaroo court for the hearing.
Let's just hope the works of Shakespeare weren't actually written by 1,000 monkeys, as the legal case could prove somewhat complex.
The moment the European Court of Justice ruled that the people of Europe do have a right to be forgotten, the warning bells sounded. What on earth would such a woolly, hard-to-define ruling actually mean in the digital age?
It turns out, as many warned, it’s effectively creating a strange, quasi-censorship system that is forcing Google to remove links to news articles that almost certainly deserve to be in the public domain.
Google protested hard against the ruling but ultimately it must comply with the law. So it has chosen to start removing articles from its indexes, and letting the firms involved know. So far the BBC and The Guardian have reported that pieces have been removed from Google, such as a column by Robert Peston commenting on bankers' woes during the 2007 financial crisis.
It is not clear who made the requests, or why, but Google has decided that it must remove them. It could have possibly deferred the decisions to a legal authority, but instead has chosen to become the judge and jury of the requests it receives.
In many ways this isn’t Google’s fault. With over 50,000 requests piling up, it probably felt compelled to start making some decisions. However, the precedent is worrying.
Like it or loathe it, Google’s reach is huge, and removing a result from the index is a very good way of ensuring bad news is hidden away. While for some there may well be a legitimate reason to want a result removed, for most cases the motives could well be more questionable.
It's already been reported that some have asked for links regarding stories of tax dodgers, paedophiles and dodgy doctors to be removed from the Google search index. Again, the motives for this could come from an honest, understandable stance, but the outcome is worrying.
In effect, the European courts seem to have ended up creating a system of censorship, but rather than being the state that controls it, it is the people that have the right to try and hide themselves, with Google seemingly happy to process requests without question.
There are two points to consider though: firstly, the pressure this situation is creating for the EU could force it to amend its ruling. Secondly, with so many online outlets writing about the articles that are taken down, we could well see the Streisand effect come into play.
Perhaps Google is hoping for both outcomes, in order to show the EU courts how absurd the decision is proving.
Whenever a disruptive technology arrives on the scene those who are threatened usually respond with anger and derision.
From the Luddite machine breakers of the early 1800s to Steve Ballmer's cheery dismissal of the iPhone, such reactions are commonplace. The outcome, though, is usually the same, as the disruptive ground-breaking technology continues to thrive and the older system struggles.
So, with this short revisionist history lesson, let us turn our gaze to the streets of London where on Wednesday afternoon black cab drivers staged a protest against taxi app Uber, claiming it is unfairly muscling in on their patch.
The cabbies say that because Uber allows unlicensed, untrustworthy individuals to run their cars as private hire vehicles, they are not only putting the public at risk but breaking the law by using a meter to calculate journey costs.
Transport for London referred the situation to the High Court as it said it wasn't sure whether an app generating a fee for a journey did represent an infringement of this law, but the cabbies are protesting anyway.
This means that streets across the capital have been gridlocked, causing mayhem for millions.
The timing of the protest was seized on by Uber for a fairly nifty piece of marketing, as it announced that its service can now incorporate black cabs, so that those seeking the nearest vehicle could end up in a traditional Hackney Carriage.
Whether black cabs want to be included on the service remains to be seen, as judging by today's protests they may well choose to have nothing to do with it in the future. Those who willingly reject the offer could well end up regretting it, though, if history does indeed repeat itself.
With some reports that downloads of the app have increased 850 percent as a result of the protest, the taxi brigade could have inadvertently started their own demise. Time will tell.