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The Open Rights Group Calls on Big Websites to Boycott Phorm

Posted: 24th Mar, 2009 By: MarkJ
The Open Rights Group (ORG) has issued a public letter to the Chief Privacy Officers, or nearest equivalent, for seven of the world’s largest website giants - Microsoft, Google (YouTube), Facebook, AOL (Bebo), Yahoo!, Amazon and eBay - asking them to boycott Phorm. The controversial Phorm system works with UK broadband ISPs to monitor what websites you visit for use in targeted advertising campaigns.

The letter, which is signed by the ORG's Executive Director - Jim Killock, the Foundation for Information Policy Research (FIPR) Treasurer - Richard Clayton, Anti-Phorm campaigner - Alexander Hanff (NoDPI) and Pete John, calls on the web giants to "protect" their "users' privacy" by exercising the ability to "opt-out of the Phorm system."

It also makes strong reference to the "very significant concerns being expressed by many of your UK Internet customers" and the recent meeting held in Parliament, hosted by Baroness Miller, at which Sir Tim Berners-Lee took a firm stand against systems like Phorm's (original news). A recent anti-Phorm petition, which gained over 21,000 signatures, is also mentioned:

ORG Letter Extracts

We believe that many of your customers will feel exactly the same way. They may be using other Internet providers, but the information they put on your website may well be viewed by them as personal, and they will not wish it to be read and stored by third party technologies.

Even where your customers are using Phorm / Webwise ISPs, we are entirely unconvinced that the information they are given will ensure that they give ‘informed consent’ to the processing of all the data they send to and receive from your website.

Additionally, you may have concerns of your own; that a third party will be processing the contents of your website, without asking your permission, in order to construct profiles of your customers.

You may already be aware of our view that the Phorm / Webwise system is illegal. Communications cannot be lawfully intercepted, as this system does, without the informed consent of both the sender and receiver. The system will make copies of copyright material without permission, a further unlawful activity. Also, by forging extra ‘tracking’ cookies in your name, it may well bring your own system into disrepute.

We strongly believe that it is clearly in your company’s interest, it is in the interests of all of your customers, and it will serve to protect your brand’s reputation, if you insist that the Phorm/Webwise system does not process any data that passes to or from your website.

You may well wish to reserve the right to take legal action on your own account. However, Phorm have announced an alternative and relatively simple way of taking action, in that it is possible to “opt out” of their system by simply sending an email to website-exclusion at webwise.com.

They provide full details at:

The Information Commissioners Office (ICO) states that Phorm's system should be opt-in, which means that you choose to join its service and are not initially included by default, though that is generally applicable to consumers and not necessarily public websites.

Presently BT is the only UK ISP looking to adopt Phorm following its recent trials, two of which were conducted without customers consent. Both TalkTalk and Virgin Media have expressed a mix of support and interest, though neither provider has made a move toward adoption for some time.

Phorm often defends this aspect of its system by saying that many other firms, such as Google, employ similar behavioural advertising and tracking methods. However this usually requires the consent of a website owner and insertion of specific code into their pages. It can also be blocked by anti-spyware/spam applications.
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