BT Newsbyte
BT's quarterly newsletter for analysts and investors - Issue 39 - December 2015

BT publishes Privacy and Freedom of Expression Report

Julian AshworthBy Julian Ashworth, Director of public policy, BT

On 10 December we published a report outlining our position on privacy and free expression in communications in the UK.

We respect human rights. We were one of the original companies to sign the UN Global Compact - the world's largest corporate sustainability initiative, which sets out principles for responsible business. We're also committed to implementing the UN Guiding Principles which set out expectations for respecting human rights. These principles help us understand how our business might affect human rights, and what we need to do – and show publicly – to address that.

In 2014 we decided to review how our UK operations were performing against the commitments we've made to respect human rights. We looked – with the help of external advisers - at our potential effect on employees, customers, workers in our supply chain and communities in which we operate. (We focussed primarily on the UK because it's where our mass-market consumer business is based.)

In our annual reporting this year we talked about the outcome of that review. We saw we could toughen our policy commitment with more detailed guidance. We found we could strengthen our governance with deeper engagement across the business, adopting more formal processes. To make sure we address what we found, we have established a human rights steering group, sponsored by a member of our Operating Committee.

We also saw we could be more open about how we focus on our main potential impacts on human rights: privacy and free expression. That's why the bulk of the report we published on 10 December discusses how we handle situations where government asks us to disclose customer data or information (rather than our wider obligations under data protection legislation). While privacy and free expression aren't the only impacts on human rights we may have, we think they're the most salient. And they're clearly connected.

Privacy & Government Investigatory Powers

We have a duty to safeguard our customers' data and the privacy of their communications. We also have a legal obligation to comply with specific UK government requests for information about how people use our services and the content of their communications. For example, the government (and other public bodies) can request information from us about who our customers call and email. They can also require us to make the content of our customers' communications available in real-time. To find out what is being said, for example in a telephone conversation, text message or email. It's important that the way this is handled includes checks and balances, takes account of human rights, and is used in a manner that is necessary and proportionate to the threat.

The use of these powers and their impact on people's right to privacy is the subject of a healthy public and political debate. We believe government must have investigatory powers to protect society. And we support the UK government in protecting national security, fighting crime and helping individuals in 'life at risk' situations.

But it's vital that there are proper controls over investigatory powers and how they're used. These powers can be intrusive. They should only be used when clearly lawful, necessary and proportionate. And the public must have confidence that there's a strong legal framework protecting their rights against unnecessary interference. Because privacy is even more important in an age when so much information is available online about people's lives.

We play no part in the authorisation of requests. We don't know why a request has been made, or the grounds for deciding that it is necessary and proportionate. Generally, we believe that this is the right approach – it's for our democratically elected government and its agencies to decide what is needed for law enforcement or national security reasons. However we do think that we should have the opportunity to give our view on technical and practical issues relating to use of the powers.

If we have any concerns about something we're being asked to do, we carry out our own legal review – and get expert opinion where necessary – before raising our concerns with the requesting authority. We've done this on a number of occasions for both legal and operational reasons. And sometimes we've spoken directly with the government to voice our concerns or seek assurances.

Free expression online

We believe people should have the freedom to access the legal content and services they want on the internet. Restrictions to this right should only be imposed in very limited circumstances – the rights people have offline should be available online too.

In July 2012, BT signed the Open Internet Code of Practice where we committed to providing "full and open internet access products" whenever possible, and to being transparent about the circumstances when we can't.

Sometimes, however, we block certain websites or 'filter' content, even though we're only carrying that material across our network. These actions fall into four broad categories:

  • Customer choice (e.g. BT Parental Controls);
  • Child sexual abuse images;
  • Court orders (content which infringes other people's intellectual property rights, such as films, music and videos);
  • Protecting our customers (e.g. blocking malware which could harm our customers' computer systems and communications or affect our services).

We consider with great care any requests or attempt to restrict our customers' use of the internet. We look at whether restrictions are proportionate and lawful. And we talk about these issues regularly with government and other stakeholders to influence the debate in a way that respects free expression. We've even had court proceedings taken against us because we've refused to block content when asked to do so.

Where next?

Privacy and free expression go hand in hand. While the public debate is underway on investigatory powers, we think the time is right to address free expression online too. And, of course, part of that involves examining the role that communications providers like us should play.

Read more here.