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Two Conferences Raise Concerns over Phorm

Posted: 27th Nov, 2008 By: MarkJ
There's been a lot of activity on the Phorm front recently, both from the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) 'Privacy by Design' conference in Manchester and from a 'Behavioural Targeting: the Fire and the Fury' (.PDF) debate at the University of Westminster (NMK).

Neil Maybin's brief summary of the latter provides for a few interesting quotes, which we've pasted in below. Phorm's UK Commercial Director, Nick Barnett, was also vocal in his attendance of the 'Fire and the Fury' debate:

[Nick Barnett] also stated that with Phorm users received anti-phishing protection. A contributor from the floor pointed out that current versions of the web browsers used by more than 90% of people in the UK provided this for free and prompted for activation when they were installed.

Guy Phillipson then threw the debate open to the floor. Early on in this process, he took a straw poll.

Q1 – Would you Opt In to Phorm if it meant your Broadband was free?
- Around 50% said Yes.
Q2 – Would you Opt In to Phorm on the currently proposed terms?
- Only 5 people (less than 10%) said Yes.

The absence of BT was noted (An NMK person said they had been invited but had declined to attend) since it was the ISPs who would implement Phorm. A contributor from the floor stated that since trust in ISPs had been mentioned, executives or spokesman for four (Orange, Sky, Tiscali, Virgin) had said they wouldn’t implement Phorm, in some cases citing privacy issues.
What was the Panel’s view?

Nick Barnett responded that these were merely executives or spokesmen and not formal company positions. He dismissed Tiscali who were looking for a buyer. The statement from Orange had come from a group executive and was not necessarily the view of Orange UK. He was meeting that executive shortly. Discussions continued with Sky. Virgin was still a Phorm partner – indeed Phorm and Virgin met on more or less a weekly basis.

Rupert Staines [VP Europe, Specific Media (500 site advertising network)] observed that the ISPs were running scared and that it was their own fault.

Nick continued that behavioural targeting had to follow ICO and OFCOM guidelines: opt-in had to be unavoidable and clearly informed. It was for Phorm. Other schemes should follow. A contributor from the floor asked how Phorm opt-in could be informed when the Webwise invitation screen did not explain all a user’s web browsing would be intercepted and read if they accepted the invitation. Nick expressed surprise at this as he thought that information was there.

A contributor from the floor who worked for an advertising agency raised the issue of trust from their perspective. Unless a behavioural targeting scheme (such as Phorm) was cleaner than clean advertisers would pull out.

There was certainly a lot of useful debate involved and we recommend that those interested in these concerns check out the links at the top of this news item for more. It was especially interesting to see an advertising agency making the point that concern over schemes like Phorm had made advertisers themselves consider pulling out.

Phorm works with ISPs to monitor what websites you visit for use in targeted advertising campaigns, though its methods have raised many legal and privacy concerns. BT in particular has faced criticism for its involvement, not least for their secret trials that took place without customer consent during 2006 and 2007.
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