The Times, 16 July 2009


The Greeks had a word for what happens when the unwashed masses rise up and collectively declare that they're mad as hell and they're not going to take it any more. They called it ochlocracy: mob rule.

And this week, the mob has given 118800, providers of the UK's first mobile phone directory service, a richly-deserved kick in the teeth. 118800 were offering to provide details of about 15 million phone numbers, which they had purchased from brokers and market research companies. That fact alone makes those of us who tick here not to receive details of special offers twitch uncontrollably. It's everything we suspected was happening: those companies who ask for our numbers so they can contact us to arrange delivery or update us on changes to our order are in fact keeping them in a vault (which they almost certainly lick for pleasure) and then selling them to the highest bidder.

As with compulsory ID cards, what started as an obsession for privacy nuts who sleep with foil wrapped round their heads has swiftly moved into the mainstream. So many of us have logged on to remove our numbers from 118800's list that their website has now been down for several days, and the directory service has been suspended.

I find it impossible to greet this news with anything less than a triumphalist cackle of joy. Take that, market research companies. Mwah ha ha. You may buy and sell our details like the bottom-feeders you are, but in a fit of collective fury, spurred on by such unlikely anarchic broadcasts as the BBC's Working Lunch, we will thwart you.

What is especially interesting about this exercise of people power is that no-one seems to have seen it coming. Telephone directories have existed since 1878, and no-one has ever made a peep about privacy. But things have changed. Half of us are now ex-directory. We no longer want people to be able to find out our numbers or addresses. We want to keep these details private, and just give them to people we choose. And if that is true of our landline numbers, it is doubly, quadruply true of our mobiles.

Mobile phones aren't just communication devices, they're an extension of ourselves. We carry them on our persons, our friends use them to tell us of births, emergencies, deaths. They are where we can be reached at any time (except the theatre, and the cinema, unless we are evil). And we don't want to be cold-called on them, not now, and not ever. Not even by operators texting to see if we'd mind being contacted by someone who's asked for our numbers. If I wanted someone to have my phone number, I would give it to them. If I haven't, it's not because I overlooked you, it's because I don't want to talk to you.