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Internal Emails Reveal BBC Views Towards Blocking Phorm

Posted: 23rd May, 2009 By: MarkJ
A public Freedom of Information (FoI) request, which concerned any communications relating to the BBC's stance towards opting out of having its websites used by Phorm's controversial behavioural advertising system, has resulted in a mass of revealing internal messages being released.

Dear Sir or Madam,

Has the BBC followed the likes of Wikimedia and Amazon in opting out of allowing BT Webwise/Phorm to profile users of it's websites?

If not, does it plan to in the future?

Please disclose information on all meetings and correspondence regarding this subject, including dates, attendees and agendas.

Yours faithfully,

M Veale

The BBC's current position on Phorm , which works with UK broadband ISPs (e.g. BT WebWise) to monitor what websites you visit for use in targeted advertising campaigns , is that it will not "at this time" opt-out of allowing the system to profile users of its websites. However, they are keeping a close eye on the legal wrangling between the UK government and European Commission (related news), which could affect that stance.

Meanwhile the internal communications (Download Disclosures .PDF Format - 1.1MB) reveal a somewhat more divided opinion, with many involved in the discussions appearing to lean more towards opting-out (just as Wikipedia and Amazon have done - HERE).

The BBC's Richard Cooper said: "From a commercial perspective I can understand why there's value created in having this information, and therefore why ISPs want to do this. From a technical perspective it's evil!"

The BBC's Future Media and Technology Controller, Anthony Rose, added: "My view on Phorm is that it's a flawed business model ... I don’t see Phorm surviving long-term, which would limit the amount of time and energy that we need to devote to [THEM] ... Phorm has gotten itself into a privacy pickle ... given the negative PR I can't see this ending any other way than the ISPs capitulating and admitting this was a poorly thought through idea."

However, this is clearly tempered by a combination of fears, such as whether UK ISP's would react badly to the BBC opting-out and how it might affect their stance with using a similar technology from Audience Science on its BBC Worldwide sites.

Anti-Phorm/DPI campaigner, Alexander Hanff, commented on this matter at NoDPI: "I think it is important to remind people at this point that it was the action of NoDPI campaigners which originally forced the BBC to remove Audience Science from the UK BBC sites and restrict it to only their global services - and that this alone should be enough to dissolve the BBC’s concerns on how the public will perceive Audience Science. If they felt it was fitting to remove Audience Science from the bbc.co.uk web sites, the same argument goes with regards to opting out of Phorm."

There are certainly more than a few worthy quotes in the released communications, although it's important to have context and for that you will need to read the whole letter chain yourselves. Expect Phorm's PR spin machine to kick into full gear shortly with a statement or three.
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