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Thursday March 12, 2009 - 9:00 am
Transcripts from yesterdays House of Commons debate (original news) on Internet privacy, deep-packet inspection and phorm have certainly turned up some interesting quotes and reactions. Chief among those were several comments made by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web (WWW):

"To allow someone to snoop on your Internet traffic is to allow them to put a television camera in your room, except it will tell them a whole lot more about you than the television camera," said Sir Tim.

"Clearly we must not interfere with the Internet, and we must not snoop on the Internet. If we snoop on clicks and data, we can find out a lot more information about people than if we listen to their conversations."

Sir Tim's strong opposition to the collection of sensitive personal data about people’s habits drew an angry response from Kent Ertugrul, phorm's CEO. phorm's controversial service works with ISPs to monitor what websites you visit for use in targeted advertising campaigns:

"There have been a number of things said that patently misrepresent what we do," claimed Ertugrul before proceeding to point out how phorm had, "the strongest privacy protection of everyone on the internet." It's not presently clear how such a claim can easily be substantiated.

Ertugrul continued to warn that much of the media wouldn't even exist without advertising, to which Sir Tim responded by saying that targeted advertising was an "improvement" but there were better and no doubt less invasive ways of doing it. Sir Tim has also posted a bullet point summary on his W3 Blog:

A discussion was held at the House of Lords by Baroness Miller on 2009-02-11. These are some notes I made for the event, which I attended.

  • The Internet in general has and deserves the same protection as paper mail and telephone.

  • If fact you could argue that it needs it more, as it carries more or our lives and is more revealing than our phone calls or our mail.

  • The access by an ISP of information within an internet packet, other than that information used for routing, is equivalent to wirtetapping a phone or opening sealed postal mail.

  • The URLs which people use reveal a huge amount about their lives, loves, hates, and fears. This is extremely sensitive material. People use the web in crisis, when wondering whether they have STDs, or cancer, when wondering whether they are homosexual and whether to talk about it, to discuss political views which may to some may be abhorrent, and so on.

  • We use the internet to inform ourselves as voters in a democracy. We use the internet to decide what is true and what is not. We use the internet for healthcare and social interaction and so on. These things will all have a completely different light cast on then if the users know that the click will be monitored and the data will be shared with third parties.

  • The URLs produced when using forms contain the information typed into those forms. Personal data, private data.

  • If people really want privacy, then many users and sites may switch to using SSL encryption: to doing theior actual web surfing thorugh an encrypted tunnel. This takes a lot of server CPU cycles, making server farms more expensive. It would slow the user's computer. It would effectively slow down the whole net. It also prevents the use of HTTP proxies, which currently help the efficiency of web access.

  • There are considerable risks if the information is abused. Imagine:
    -- To be able to buy a profile of a person you are interested in;
    -- To discriminate based on profiles of people when deciding whether suitable to employ them;
    -- To discriminate in giving life insurance, and so on, against those the have lookup up (say) cardiac symptoms on the web;
    -- Criminal attacks on government officials at home;
    -- Foreign attacks on the country made by targeting and analyzing key individuals;
    -- Predators choosing, stalking, and targeting victims;...
    to name a few.

  • The information could be deliberately abused by an inside worker, or could be acquired by an attack on the system's machines.

  • The power of this information is so great that the commercial incentive for companies or individuals misuse it will be huge, so it is essential to have absolute clarity that it is illegal.

  • To put his in perspective, it is like the company having a video camera inside your house, except that it gives them actually much more information about you.
The act of reading, like the act of writing, is a pure, fundamendal, human act. It must be available without interference or spying.

Sir Tim also criticised the government’s own pursuit of privacy invading technologies via its Data Retention laws (Communications Data Bill), which may have made it more difficult for them to act against phorm while doing something very similar themselves, he remarked.

From Sunday all UK ISPs will be forced by the government to start logging basic customer access, web and email activity on their networks for up to one year (ISPr Article: 'ISPs Raise Concerns Over Data Retention Proposals'). However the full formal introduction will not take place until 6th April and ISPs have been given over a year to adapt.

Wednesday March 11, 2009 - 9:46 am
There will be an important debate today in the House of Commons between 10am and 12am about Online Privacy and the Interception of Internet Communications. The meeting will be chaired by Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer and attended by the following individuals:

Sir Tim Berners Lee
Invetor of the World Wide Web.

Mr Nicholas Bohm
General Counsel Foundation for Information Policy Research

Dr Richard Clayton
Security Expert, Cambridge University & Treasurer, Foundation for Information Policy Research

Mr Jim Killock
Open Rights Group

Mr Robert M. Topolski
US Federal Communications Commission panel member

Alexander Hanff
Anti-Phorm campaigner
Many others will also be joining the debate between peers and MPs, though it is not yet certain whether phorm will send somebody to represent its controversial behavioural advertising system. Sadly NoDPI reports that BT were invited but declined. We hope to have further details on this debate in due course.

Wednesday March 4, 2009 - 9:28 am
Controversial behavioural advertising systems, such as those that work with UK ISPs to monitor users website browsing habits and thus develop targeted advertising campaigns (i.e. Phorm, BT Webwise), have been given a new set of guidelines by the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB).

The IAB reports that all of the key players, including phorm, AOL, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo, have now agreed to the following three core "guideline" commitments:

Notice. A company collecting and using online information for behavioural advertising must clearly inform a consumer that data is being collected for this purpose.

Consent. A company collecting and using online data for behavioural advertising must provide a mechanism for users to decline behavioural advertising and where applicable seek a consumer's consent.

Education. A company collecting and using online data for behavioural advertising must provide consumer with clear and simple information about their use of data for this purpose and how users can decline.
Typically guidelines are not the same as rules, though not everybody agrees with what the IAB has said. Prominent anti-Phorm campaigner Alexander Hanff has already written an open letter to Nick Stringer, the IAB's Head of Regulatory Affairs, requesting clarification on several points:

Dear Mr. Stringer,

I note with interest and concern an article which appeared on Reuters’ web site earlier this evening regarding the IAB and their release of “good practice principles” with regards to targetted/behavioural advertising. I note the article states the following:

“Under the proposals, all online behavioural advertising platforms must clearly inform a consumer before taking any data, they must provide a way for users to decline behavioural advertising and preferably seek a consumer’s consent.”

The reason for my concern is that this paragraph simply does not adhere to UK or EU law or regulations. Firstly the mention that an advertising platform must “inform a consumer before taking any data” is somewhat of an insult to the privacy rights of the individual - the law states that they must seek permission to take any data not that they must “inform a consumer before taking any data”; the very wording of that statement seems to suggest that advertising corporations have a right to take the data which clearly is not the case under law.

Secondly, I was not only shocked but found it hard to believe that the article states “and preferably seek a consumer’s consent.” Again I should point out that under all laws relating to personal data (including Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, Privacy and Electronic Communications (EU Directive) Regulations and the Data Protection Act - to mention just a few) obtaining informed consumer consent is a requirement not a preference.

I would appreciate an official response from the IAB clarifying these issues and will be contacting the EU Commission and UK Politicians/Regulators regarding the same in the near future.

As an open letter this correspondence will be published on https://nodpi.org along with any response received.


Alexander Hanff

Sadly it seems increasingly like such systems will soon become an accepted practice in the UK, with BT seemingly gearing itself up to proceed despite some notable opposition and EU concern.

Saturday February 28, 2009 - 9:11 am
Phorm, which controversially works with UK ISPs to monitor what websites you visit for use in targeted (behavioural) advertising campaigns, has let loose the lawyers to stop us and other news outlets from publishing a Which? survey that highlights opposition to its service.

The survey itself was sent out on Wednesday and quickly summarised by a number of mainstream news providers before promptly being removed. The Register has kindly published Which?'s full retraction notice, which we've pasted below:

Which? Press Release Retraction

Urgent withdrawal of press release from Which? - Internet users say: don't sell my surfing habits

Which? has received further information and representations from phorm about the proposed Webwise service, and it has agreed to withdraw the above press release, issued under embargo on 24 February 2008, while we consider them.

Some of the information in the press release and related article is said to be inaccurate and as a consequence may be defamatory. You are strongly urged not to write an article based on the press release or the related article 'Online privacy matters' in Which? magazine.

It's understood that phorm is now working with Which? to help them "correct" the release, which is said to have alleged that the firms system collected and sold on data. We expect that the press release will be re-issued at some point in the future, albeit with certain elements having been removed or reworded.

Phorm has certainly caused more than a few privacy fears, not least because of BT's secret 2006 and 2007 trials, which were conducted without customers’ knowledge or consent. One public survey we ran last year also highlighted strong opposition to the service (Would you leave your ISP if it adopted phorm?), with nearly 57% saying they’d switch to a different ISP if their existing provider adopted phorm.

This week also saw the publication of a new survey by advertising firm Burst Media (Internet Users Concerned by Privacy of their Personal Data), which again highlighted a strong opposition to phorm style advertising services.

Monday February 23, 2009 - 9:06 am
The latest survey of 4,000 adults by advertising firm Burst Media has revealed that 80.1% of web surfers are concerned about the online privacy of their personal information (i.e. age, gender, income and web surfing habits). Furthermore the concern increases with age, rising from 67.3% among respondents 18-24 years to 85.7% with respondents 55 years and older.

Similarly people saw no value in adverts that had been targeted to them based on their web surfing behaviour, despite some systems claiming to enhance the surfing experience. Only 23.2% of respondents would not mind if non-personally identifiable information was collected if ads were better targeted:

Behavioural Targeting Approval Chart 2008

The findings represent grim reading for phorm, which works with UK ISPs to monitor what websites you visit for use in targeted advertising campaigns. The service has caused more than a few privacy fears, not least because of BT's secret 2006 and 2007 trials, which were conducted without customers’ knowledge or consent.

There was a noted difference in the response of men and women with men more likely than women to say they would not mind the targeting of ads based on non-personally identifiable information, 26.7% versus 19.9%. Meanwhile 61.9% claimed to be aware of the tracking, collecting and sharing of information that occurs as a result of online activities.

Thursday February 12, 2009 - 9:17 am
The European Commission's (EC) telecoms commissioner, Viviane Reding, has confirmed that BT's secret 2006 and 2007 trials of Phorms controversial advertising system, which were conducted without customers’ knowledge or consent, are still under investigation.

Reding has reportedly now written a third letter to the UK government in response to its previous replies, which apparently failed to offer a satisfactory answer to the EC's concerns over phorm's use:

Reding's chief spokesman, Martin Selmayr, told The Register: "The European Commission's investigation with regard to the phorm case is still ongoing. The Commission may have to proceed to formal action if the UK authorities do not provide a satisfactory response to the Commission's concerns on the implementation of European law in the context of the phorm case."

To date both the current government, City of London Police and Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) have effectively turned their noses up at the issue. This is despite many industry experts and the Foundation for Information Policy Research (FIPR) claiming that phorm breaks European Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations (PECR).

The weight of official support, at least in the UK, would otherwise appear to be falling in phorm’s favour. Mind you, one quick look at the Police’s laughable reasoning for not investigating BT’s secret trials of the technology shows how technical ignorance could also be to blame – here.

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