Fox (n): carnivore of genus vulpes; crafty person; scavenger; (vb) to confuse; -ed (adj): to be drunk.
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Monday 11 June 2012

Bus stop rules.

IMAGINE a media company which wants to stick its nose into every single part of your life.

It wants your passwords, email address, phone number. It needs your home address, takes your bank details, and to keep a copy of your personal pictures.

It ends up knowing about your sexual tastes, your salary, your children. It does all this without your explicit permission; in fact it does it automatically whenever you use its products.

And it's not a secret. Most of us know about it only because unfriendly journalists - the best kind, unless you're the person they're being unfriendly towards - have been reporting on it.

The corporation behind it all is worth billions, is run by people we don't know but world leaders seem to, and sprawls all over the world. They've been caught out breaking the rules and invading our privacy, and then failing to co-operate with the authorities investigating them.

And nor do we. We still buy the products which they use to harvest our information, and give them our passwords quite willingly.

So where is the inquiry into the ethics and practices of the giants of our modern digital age? Where are the politicians demanding a change to the law, the celebrities wanting stricter regulation, the judges handing down decisions about how Google and Apple and Facebook are infringing the European Convention on Human Rights which says every individual has a right to respect for the privacy of their private and family life, home and correspondence?

Ah. Well the politicians are having dinner with the corporations, the celebrities are attending corporation parties to have their egos stroked, and the judges don't understand Twitter.

There are plenty of differences between newspapers and the internet, one of which is that so far the internet hasn't been shut down for hacking a dead girl's mobile phone. But if a part of it did do something as dramatically bad, would we use a different website? Throw the sexy modern phone away and buy a different model? Abandon our iPads and Kindles and tablets in dudgeon?

No. We wouldn't.

Which is why rather than changing anything those digital giants are stepping things up a gear. They're going to take pictures of our gardens, something which on the rare occasions a newspaper's done the same has led to a costly court case and most editors deciding it's not worth the bother.

A friend of mine bought an iPad the other day. "When I turned it on it wanted my email address and name," he told me in the pub. "So I thought fine, and used the pseudonym I always use for online stuff. Then it wanted my date of birth, so I put in 1/1/76 like I always do.

"Then it wanted my bank account details to check that information was correct. It wanted a second email address to verify the first one, it wanted me to OK loads of stuff I wasn't OK with, and there was no way to activate it without giving it everything about me. Why?"

If a newspaper invades your privacy it can be confusing, upsetting, wrong, but you can normally see something produced as a result of it. You might not like the end product but there is a system of cause and effect which is easy to understand. They want pictures and information in order to print them, and we all get to see and judge it when they do.

Of what use are baby pictures to Facebook? Why does Apple care if its customers have a bank account in a different name? How is a picture of my back garden going to be of anything more than passing interest even to people who have lived in my house and want to check if the roses are still there?

That's something we don't know so much about and can't see. We can't hold it in our hands on the train or argue about it much over Sunday lunch.

But they're using that stuff for something, because Google makes £40,000 a minute. Apple does twice that, and iPhones alone turnover £64bn a year. Regardless of its current share price, Facebook had a revenue of £2.3billion last year.

They also make, or sell products which are used to make, vast amounts from porn; to stalk, kill and terrify; and if you're of that bent there's dead schoolgirls to perv over as well.

Nothing wrong with a business turning a profit or avoiding paying more tax than it wants to, legally. But we treat our digital world as though it were a bit like a science-fiction movie - a place where everyone is equal, there's no war, people are in agreement and everything is clean and white and shiny and more than anything else, it's unquestionably moral.

In fact it's full of humans, doing human stuff. A lot of it's not moral at all and you would be horrified if you knew about it. And if you did know, you'd sit and complain about how awful it is to your friends and then Google the latest Facebook troll story, browse some online paparazzi pictures of celebrities, or send some nasty tweets you don't think will be traced back to you.

The most pernicious thing is this: if it's not on the internet, people don't think it exists. If it is on the internet, people think it must be true.

The other day I saw a press photographer from a reputable organisation - I won't name it because he'll only get trolled - announce he was building his own drone to send up and take pictures from the air. He illustrated his point by posting an aerial view of someone's back garden.

If a newspaper said they were doing that, a lot of people would get their knickers in a twist. When Apple and Google announce they're both sending up spy planes we merely wonder what the neighbours' back yard is like.

Morality cannot be forced and only comes about when we are, in Gordon Brown's words, "incentivised". As children we are taught that being good brings reward and being bad does not, and we figure out empathy and other stuff along the way. The traditional media are old and crotchety now, a bit like Prince Philip who doesn't see what's wrong with how we've always done things but quite capable of being modern when it suits.

The internet is a teenager, testing its strength and seeing how far it can go while at the same time never having been set a single rule and being taught that the more it does what it's doing the more money it'll make.

It will grow up, but it's going to hurt. In the meantime there is just one rule for the internet, which is otherwise a fairly lawless place: don't do anything you wouldn't do at a bus stop.

That means not swearing too much, no masturbating, don't scream at strangers and be careful what private information you reveal. Think about how you interact with the world, because that's what the internet is: a screen-sized portal to the entire planet.

And yes it's us that have to follow the rules, and perhaps it would be nice if just once the big boys had to do the same. If the internet giants had to behave, play nicely, and refrain from picking all our pockets while we wait for the number 42.

So let's hope our leaders give them some strict parenting.


"Have you seen the internet?" "I thought you had it." "No that's your job." "BUGGER."