How I learned to stop worrying and love the internet

THE Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has finally, in its protracted wisdom, decided not to take action against BT and Phorm over an trial they ran, in which the internet browsing activities of around 18,000 customers were monitored. Which, on the face of it, sounds quite bad.

Except, when you look at the details, it’s really not. The information they extracted through Phorm’s frankly ludicrous sounding “deep packet inspection” software (most of which ISPs are legally obliged to keep anyway) was anonymised, processed without human intervention and later destroyed. The data was intended to give ISPs a better understanding of their customers and therefore better targeted advertising. It’s as innocuous as a flash of Barbara Windsor’s breasts in Carry On Camping compared to the entire weight of internet pornography.

The so-called scandal, which was probably made worse by the fact that Phorm sounds like a low-rent comic book villain, is in the same vein as the witch-hunt against Google for its data gathering practices.

The internet is changing. It’s getting smart. It is no longer a “one-size-fits all” system. Its tailored to your interests, your location, your age, who you are friends with, what you buy, how long you linger on different websites. It is constantly evolving to suit every individual user, like a parasite so far advanced it no longer kills its host but lives symbiotically with it, benefitting it to such an extent it becomes indispensable.

People who rabidly guard every shred of personal information are the modern equivalent of your grandfather’s creepy friend whose house is piled high with stacks of yellowed newspapers and who keeps tins of food in his attic “just in case”. They are probably the same people who believe September the 11th is a figment of George W Bush’s imagination or that there is a global conspiracy of lizard-people ready to push the red button if only they could work out what porn sites you have been browsing recently.

Targeted advertising is not only the future of the internet, but the lifeblood of thousands of companies. Instead of being bombarded with adverts for “hot girls in your area,” they mean you might actually see something vaguely relevant to your life. Rather than an obtrusive annoyance, adverts become a complimentary part of your online experience.

The ads on my work Gmail account, based on emails I have received, include “Investment Bank Bootcamp” and flights from Heathrow to Kathmandu, which may not be entirely useful but at least are a step in the right direction. (In something of a blow to this argument, my personal account features a link to the London Review of Books, which makes me sound better read than I actually am, and, more troublingly, “How to Find Cheap Prom Dresses”.)

More relevant is the experience of a friend of mine who was going through a messy break-up and boring anyone who would listen with the details. The ads that popped up in her browser read, in this order: “Relationship counselling,” “Divorce lawyers,” “Chocolate”. This next generation internet wouldn’t be possible without some recording of people’s online behaviour. The idea that this is a bad thing seems to boil down to two flawed beliefs:

1) That your life is somehow relevant or interesting or, at the very least, noticed. It’s not. It is so infinitesimally insignificant that you may as well not exist at all.

2) The machine is to be feared. Relax. Take a deep breath. For now they are on our side. And on the day the robot revolution comes, I’ll be the first one to pledge allegiance to our new mechanical masters.