Vodafone exec warns against tech regulation

Government regulation of the technology industry can have unforeseen consequences, a Vodafone public-policy expert tells a Westminster e-Forum audience

A Vodafone public-policy expert has warned about the perils of technology industry regulation being used by governments for other purposes.

Vodafone's global head of content standards, Annie Mullins, told a Westminster eForum event on Wednesday that following food riots at Egyptian government-subsidised bakeries in March 2008, the Egyptian authorities demanded communications data from Vodafone to help identify rioters.

"We've had to hand over data on people in Egypt due to the food riots," said Mullins. "Regulation can be a Trojan horse."

Vodafone is not the first service provider to be forced to hand over customer data. In 2005, Yahoo gave Chinese authorities details which helped in the arrest and conviction of journalist Shi Tao.

Mullins told ZDNet UK at the Westminster eForum seminar, entitled 'Taming the Wild Web?', that government regulation often suffered from "scope creep" that could affect businesses and individuals. Mullins gave the example of provisions in the US Child Online Protection Act, which are being used by the US Department of Justice to attempt to force Google to hand over search data in a general pornography probe.

Mullins said that in countries without a democratic political system, regulations can be used to demand data that has been collected for another purpose.

"For parts of the world that aren't subject to democracy, regulation can be used as a masquerade for state intrusion," said Mullins. "Collecting IP addresses can help law enforcement identify a perpetrator. But if you then went to a country — say China — and collected a lot of data to prevent child abuse, that data could then be required for something else."

Mullins, who is heavily involved in various initiatives to prevent online child abuse, including the Internet Watch Foundation, added that the UK technology industry had "very positive" examples of self regulation. She was involved in formulating Home Office social-networking guidance in April 2008, which she said has given internet companies economic agility.

"[Internet business] is a particularly dynamic industry which is changing constantly," said Mullins. "New players don't have the luxury of lawyers. Self-regulation gives economic benefits, flexibility and creativity."

Speaking at the same event, Tim Toulmin, the director of the Press Complaints Commission, argued that self-regulation for online businesses was important. "People are pig-sick of regulation," said Toulmin. "All non-illegal forms of content should be subject to other forms of [control]. Self regulation is the answer — it's quick, collaborative and entirely free."

However, MP Derek Wyatt, co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on communications, told the seminar that international online regulation was necessary for issues such as online child abuse.

"The consensus is that we do want to regulate child safety," said Wyatt. "We can start to regulate that [internationally], to agree to a common understanding."

Wyatt added that the current global economic crisis was in part due to lack of regulation. "The credit crunch was partially caused by internet trading," said the MP.

However, Wyatt added that international regulation faced issues such as different governments having different agendas. As an example, Wyatt said the US pushed back on internet regulation as it was concerned about the impact on freedom of speech.

"By its culture, the Americans don't like signing international treaties on regulation," said Wyatt. "They are partly worried about the impact on the first amendment."