Why Britain’s watchdogs have fewer teeth than goldfish

Dog-175x131If there’s one thing that makes me angry, it’s other people not getting angry enough. Britain has swathes of so-called regulators and “watchdogs” monitoring everything from advertising, to telecoms, to the protection of our private data, and they’re all about as much use as a toaster in a bath.

Take the Information Commissioner, for example. Christopher Graham may have started talking tough about cracking down on data leaks when he waltzed into his six-figure salary job this summer, but his feeble actions speak far louder than his fighting talk.

It was the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) who revealed that staff at a UK mobile network had illegally sold thousands of customer account details to brokers. That data was used to cold-call customers nearing the end of their contracts, in a bid to convince them to move to a rival network.

Mr Graham used this revelation to repeat his calls for “deterrent custodial sentences” to “stop the trade in unlawful personal information”. What he wasn’t prepared to do, however, was name the network involved – the very company who had a legal duty to protect its customers’ data. “We are preparing a prosecution case, and it would obviously prejudice a prosecution,” said a spokesperson, when asked why the ICO had taken a sudden vow of silence.

Of course, it took us no longer than two or three hours to work out who the guilty party was. Britain only has five major mobile networks – once we’d got the blanket denials from the other four, T-Mobile had little choice but to release a confession, issuing a mightily ironic riposte to the Information Commissioner for breaching its confidentiality in the process.

No-one’s disputing the fact that the real villains here were the members of staff who stole the data and sold it to the brokers – indeed, in some respects, T-Mobile was as much a victim as the people who had their details pilfered. But something was inherently wrong with an IT system that allowed employees to steal thousands of customer records and seemingly go undetected for months.  And there’s something even more wrong with an Information Commissioner that pledges to “promote openness by public bodies” and then tries to hide the identity of companies who fail to protect their customers’ data.  Not to mention the fact he’s now given T-Mobile’s lawyers a cast iron defence should any prosecution actually materialise (“The case has been prejudiced, m’lud”).

Abject ad watchdog

Vodafone-360-Samsung-H1-175x131The Information Commissioner isn’t the only watchdog you can barely hear bark, let alone see it bite. Take the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). I’ve lamented its abysmal failure to clamp down on the worst excesses of broadband providers in the past – ads for “unlimited broadband” that have strictly defined limits, for instance.

Yet, its ineffectiveness reached new lows in a recent adjudication against Vodafone. The ASA upheld a complaint made against adverts claiming the network had “abolished” its roaming charges, when in fact Vodafone had merely postponed the charges for a few months. (Vodafone, incidentally, made a valiant attempt to redefine the word “abolished” in its defence to the ASA, the comical details of which you can read here.)

Being a summer campaign, Vodafone stopped running the adverts at the end of August. The ASA issued its adjudication on 28 October. The sanction? “The ads must not appear again in their current form.” Bravo.

The ASA has a staff budget of more than £5 million, according to its most recent annual report. Yet it takes an average of 66 days to resolve complaints that require investigation. Even if an industry-funded body is never going to dish out fines to the companies that pay its way, is it really too much to ask for it to deal with complaints more promptly?

Ofcom go-slow

Then again, when it comes to quick responses, we should all bow to the undisputed procrastination masters, Ofcom. Back in 2007, Ofcom told mobile phone networks they would have to transfer customers’ numbers from one network to another within two hours by September this year.  However, Ofcom’s plans were waylaid when the Competition Appeals Tribunal (CAT) ruled that it had had got its sums wrong over the cost of implementing such measures. Ofcom said it would cost £5m, Vodafone successfully argued it would cost closer to £37m, so it was only out by a factor of seven or eight.

Now Ofcom has had to start the whole tedious process from scratch, and says it “aims to have any new porting process arrangements in place during 2011”. (“These things take time,” an Ofcom spokesperson told me.)  Oh, and instead of two hours, it’s now considering watering down the transfer time to one working day.

With watchdogs like these, who needs enemies?

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