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Phorm-enting Rebellion

Recently the UK’s three major Internet Service Providers (ISPs) announced that they had signed agreements to sell the web browsing habits of their customers to a company called Phorm. The ISPs concerned were BT, TalkTalk (Carphone Warehouse) and Virgin Media. There didn’t seem to be any mention of this being an optional service. As a Virgin Media customer this caught my attention so I had a look round a few forums to see if there were others who were as concerned as I.

Oh yes. And then some. This wasn’t just a little IT story…

IT and techie news site The Register has been at the forefront of investigations into Phorm, its history and its plans with these three major ISPs. An updated summary is kept here. There has been an awful lot written in various forums by people extremely concerned about this development. Let’s just say that it is seen by many as a gross intrusion of privacy and the ISPs seem to have been surprised by the strength of feeling against this development.

Discussions on the Cable Forum thread have been even livelier.

Today BT finally admitted that “it secretly used customer data to test Phorm’s advertising targeting technology last summer, and that it covered it up when customers and The Register raised questions over the suspicious redirects”.

BT lied to its customers and news enquiries. That’s all you need to know. I can’t say I’m surprised at that, having been on the wrong end of BT’s “service” on a number of occasions.

Carphone Warehouse has announced that it “has become the first of the three UK ISPs who have agreed to pimp data to ad targeting outfit Phorm to announce a major rethink of how it will use the technology.

Company representatives have told users in forums that they are working on a way to ensure that traffic from people who opt out will never enter the Phorm system. “We had a meeting yesterday and based on customer opinion we decided to use a different method, yet to be decided, to split the traffic so it doesn’t hit a Webwise server at all for those that opt out,” one wrote.

In an email to a customer seen by The Register, Carphone Warehouse CEO Charles Dunstone confirmed that Webwise will be opt-in only on his firm’s network. He wrote: “We have never stated what our policy was. This is the first clarification given. We are still many months before the system is meant to go live.”A post from TalkTalk admin “Matt” here adds more details. He writes: “There is no Phorm equipment in our network. We have never run any trials, nor implemented any aspect of this nor any of Phorm’s previous systems in our network.

“By making the service opt-in, we feel the onus remains firmly with Phorm to make the service useful and compelling enough that subscribers will choose to join it. If it fails to do this, it will itself fail.”

The emboldening is my emphasis.

Phorm have embarked on a PR offensive but this has been hit by two developments today.

As The Register reports, The Foundation for Information Policy Research (FIPR), a leading government advisory group on internet issues, has written to the Information Commissioner arguing that Phorm’s ad targeting system is illegal.

And then the coup de grace.

In an interview with BBC News, Sir Tim Berners-Lee gave the most eminent and public backing to those campaigning against Phorm:

“The creator of the web has said consumers need to be protected against systems which can track their activity on the internet.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee told BBC News he would change his internet provider if it introduced such a system.

Plans by leading internet providers to use Phorm, a company which tracks web activity to create personalised adverts, have sparked controversy.

Sir Tim said he did not want his ISP to track which websites he visited.

“I want to know if I look up a whole lot of books about some form of cancer that that’s not going to get to my insurance company and I’m going to find my insurance premium is going to go up by 5% because they’ve figured I’m looking at those books,” he said.

Sir Tim said his data and web history belonged to him.

He said: “It’s mine – you can’t have it. If you want to use it for something, then you have to negotiate with me. I have to agree, I have to understand what I’m getting in return.”

Sir Tim added: “I myself feel that it is very important that my ISP supplies internet to my house like the water company supplies water to my house. It supplies connectivity with no strings attached. My ISP doesn’t control which websites I go to, it doesn’t monitor which websites I go to.”

There is a video interview with Sir Tim on the BBC News page. Sir Tim addresses the use of systems such as Phorm in this interview.

Virgin Media have confirmed to me that they have not yet implemented the Phorm system and customers “will not be forced to use the system”. However, the response didn’t address my point blank refusal for any of my web browsing data to be passed to any other parties.

There are a lot of unhappy techies out there. Unhappy techies have the ability to make an awful lot of noise. Phorm are finding that out.

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