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Schoolboy Smear Tactics In The News

During my career I have encountered some truly amazing people.  People whose very presence motivates and inspires those around them to perform better, people you think “Whatever happens I must keep in contact with this person, they are a positive force in lives”.  Such people are rarer than you might think.

I have also encountered plenty of people who, in common parlance, “rock”.  This isn’t just to do with the tunes they can get out of musical instruments, it’s about their outlook on life, their sense of humour, their friendship, loyalty and conduct.

Then there are the people I dislike.  Just because I do not care for someone’s attitude or way of doing things doesn’t mean I cannot work for or with them.  This is (at the moment) a free country and we are all entitled to our own beliefs and opinions; life would be so very boring if we were all the same.  I’m sure there will be many who will look at my Top 100 Songs Of All Time and disagree with my choices, for whatever reason.  Some might go off me completely.  The idea that one has to like everyone with whom one works is a nice utopia but often little more than that.  Some of my best results have come when working with people whose methods I disliked.  That’s what being a professional is all about.  One does not have to like someone in order to work well with them.

“Jamie, how does this fit in with the title?” I hear you ask.

Well now, when the pressure’s on and deadlines are looming, when the kit’s playing up and the inspectors are coming, that’s when some people start to get a little worried.  Some people get more than just a little worried, they get abusive and unpleasant.  Some of them even try to carry that into a wider audience.  That’s where my little black book comes in useful.  That log I keep of who does and says what in such situations.  After all, if the customer perceives that the excrement is about to hit the air conditioning device you need to be clear and logical.  Especially if the customer is the kind of person to try and place blame.

Yesterday’s posting wasn’t the only reporting of Phorm’s wannabe smear campaign website.  Here are a few links and quotes from those reports.  I’ve emphasised a few parts for you and recommend that you go to the sites and read these articles in full.

Open Rights Group:

Meanwhile, in what feels like a deliberate attempt to distract from the leaked emails, Phorm have launched a rather desperate attack on a range of activists, some of whom are simply private citizens. If Phormwish to attack us –  they can go ahead, as we are an open and accountable organisation.


Phorm really ought to be picking on someone their own size: perhaps Commissioner Reding, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, or Amazon and Wikipedia, all of whom have stood up to defend privacy rights against Phorm.

Glyn Moody at ComputerWeekUK:

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. “Smear campaign” – not much constructive engagement there with your critics there, is there? And what on earth are “privacy pirates”? People who steal privacy? Er, wouldn’t that be Phorm?


And that, of course, is the underlying problem with Phorm. This whole area of handling personal data is built on trust, or it is built on nothing. Phorm betrayed that trust right from the very start by demonstrating that it regarded the views and wishes of users whose data it was using as irrelevant.


Its current campaign of attacking those who – totally justifiably in the light of its demonstrably poor record – are sceptical of the company’s plans is another major error of judgment. It confirms that it has learned nothing from its initial blunder, and that it is still stuck in the old mindset of believing that it knows better than mere mortals about what is good for them.

If Phorm wants to stand any chance of having its service adopted it needs to do a number of things. First, it should take down its puerile “smear” site; secondly it should apologise to all those it accuses of being “privacy pirates” (whatever they think it means); and thirdly – perhaps most importantly – it should acknowledge that its secret trials with BT were a mistake, and apologise publicly to all those whose data was used in this way. Only then can it start again and try to rebuild the trust it has lost


I am happy to report that Phorm has managed the rare feat of evaporating even the last drop of pity that I may once have felt for them. They have created a vicious and yet unintentionally funny website called, wait for it, Stop Phoul Play, where they even have a form that invites users to stay inphormed  (even more gratuitous ef replacement, the phools!). The website has labelled everyone involved in the campaign against the service as ‘privacy pirates’. Yes, we are labelled pirates because we oppose a service.


Many of us are opposed to Phorm because it is a unnecessary technology that intercepts communications between the user and the ISP. They may dress up this fact and claim that this interception is anonymous, but they cannot dismiss that many users find such interception needless, disturbing, and excessive.

Despite their blanket dismissal of all of its critics, there are legitimate concerns voiced by all sort of people who are not part of a vile conspiracy that wants to see a valid business model fail out of spite. Phorm, we truly find that your claims do not add up, we do not believe your technical assurances of perfect anonymity, and we do not think that we need your service. It’s as easy as that, and there is no need to conjure up conspiracy theories from thin air.

PC Plus:

Phorm today sent out an absolute masterclass in how not to win people over to a controversial technology. Not only is it unconvincing, Stop Phoul Play is also one of the most arrogant, thick-headed, and just plain strange attempts at marketing we’ve seen in a long time, and if Phorm thinks it’s going to win favour through it, it really has another thing coming. Specifically, mockery.


Phorm’s opponents set up a petition… and in doing so… desecrated the proud concept of… petitions? What? Is it even possible to read anything into that except ‘Anyone who complains about us is a bastard’?

What kind of gibbering moon logic is this? Answer: Pretty much the whole site’s arguing style. Watch it bounce as it tries to dodge the question, or just takes pot-shots at the critics as if nobody’s going to notice the actual criticisms going unanswered and avoided. If this was a problem, we’d have fixed it. That’s not a valid criticism, because it’s coming from our critics. Etc. This isn’t subtle psychological manipulation. It’s infuriatingly, insultingly patronising nonsense, mistaking childish ad hominem arguments for arguments, and confusing the likes of this with ‘debate’


Really? Want to read it? You’ll see a perfectly polite argument, almost entirely devoid of ad hominem attacks, where the original author is given an alternate point of view from perfectly civil commenters, and ultimately comes to accept it. This is Phorm’s idea of an attack? Dissent? Oh, please…


In response, a rattled Kent Ertugrul, Phorm’s CEO, has set up a website,, that is designed to be a locus for all those (perhaps we’ll be able to count them in due course, but I wouldn’t bet on it) that support Phorm and think Webwise is democracy in action and the best thing since sliced bread. Unfortunately though you won’t be able to leave a calling card. In full keeping with the sort of democratic style espoused by Phorm, the website does not permit visitors to post comments. Strange that.


Ertugrul is particularly exercised by the activities of two strong critics of Phorm. Resorting to personal attacks he describes Alexander Hanff and Marcus Williamson as “privacy pirates” a designation that could well come back to bite him on the nether regions in the weeks to come – especially as he suggests (without adducing any evidence to support his contentions) that the two men are “supported” by Phorm’s commercial rivals.


Both men strenuously deny the allegation.

It is surely a sign of desperation when the CEO of an AIM-listed company resorts to personal attacks on those that have the effrontery to criticise it rather than seeking to engage them in debate and persuade them that they are wrong by dint of cogent argument and the bringing forth of real, independently verifiable, proof that Webwise isn’t, after all, an insidious, devious, sneaky, piece of surveillance software that drives a coach and horses through British and European data protection and privacy laws.

Instead Mr. Ertugrul calls Alexander Hanff a “serial agitator” and also claims he has been banned from various Internet fora for “unsavoury behaviour”. Simultaneously, Marcus Williamson is accused of being, of all things, “a serial letter writer” attempting to heap opprobrium on both Phorm and its delicate and sensitive CEO. No Mr. Ertugrul, George Bernard Shaw was a serial letter writer, Marcus Williamson just doesn’t like your company and software very much and now and then exercises his right to say so – like a lot of other people.

Alexander Hanff though is certainly a thorn in Phorm’s side and claims responsibility for driving down the company’s stock price from the £35.05 it once fatly sat at, down to its current level of £3.90. He says he will continue to criticise and work against Phorm until the company “either runs out of money or is banned from operation in the UK and the EU.” It is known that Phorm is burning through cash like a sailor on shore leave.

Computer Shopper:

Phorm’s site implicates online IT news site The Register as being a mouthpiece for the smear campaign. We have so far been unable to find any evidence on either Phorm’s new site or in The Register’s news archive that supports this idea.


Jim Killock, Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, told Computer Shopper that, while it was “very flattering that ORG, which is funded by one thousand supporters and employs two and a half staff, is being credited with undermining a billion pound company”, he condemned Phorm’s attacks on individuals. “It is a disturbing tactic to attack individuals. Phorm should be working to allay people’s fears rather than trying to silence them with intimidation. This is clearly an attempt at intimidation against them and others who want to speak out. It is anti-democratic and desperate.”


Phorm are a big US company earning millions from their products. So what happens when they start finding the pressure from critics too much? Most in their position would ignore it. Not Phorm. They create a website that attacks them to “expose the smear and set out the true story, so that you can judge the facts for yourself”. It then proceeds to rake the muck on named individuals who it deems to have caused it trouble by questioning its product and intent.

So that’s the record “set straight” by Phorm then, despite the fact that in the past they’ve been caught in the act of favourably editing their own Wikipedia entry. It ultimately feels likes the biggest PR blunder ever signed-off, and far from dousing the fire, it’ll only fan the flames.


Most half intelligent senior politicians probably already know that fighting an alleged smear with another smear isn’t the best way to go about improving your image. Unfortunately this is largely how the new site reads.

It’s a shame because Phorm appears to have wasted a golden opportunity. They could have launched a more technical and open-access site that competently attempted to tackle the legitimate concerns and complaints many would appear to hold against their service.

Neville Hobson:

Phorm’s execution of the idea doesn’t look very good at all. To start with, the site is a launchpad for some eyebrow-raising personal attacks on their critics. How not to win friends and influence people.


But even in such a general climate of mistrust, maybe it’s mostly about a huge piece of the jigsaw that’s missing – connections to conversation places where you can engage with others and voice your opinion. I don’t see that on their site. Phorm does have a blog but little or no conversation takes place there (indeed, it looks like commenting there is disabled).

The Guardian:

It appears to be in direct retaliation against consumer-led sites like BadPhorm. But it really does look incredibly unprofessional.


Phorm misses the point because the majority of visitors will be those who care enough about this subject to be fully up to speed. The language is wrong, the strategy is wrong – labelling the people Phorm need to at least engage with, if not win over, as ‘privacy pirates’ and singling out individuals is extremely counter productive. They need to build respect, and this is not the way to do it. If they feel the criticism is unfair and unbalanced, the best way to counter that is rational, calm debate.


But none of that means there is a future for Phorm, which will probably just turn out to have been one chapter in a much longer story. The decision to publish this site feels to me like a sign that Phorm is dying, and this is one of its final throes.

The Register:

The site, which reads like the worst paranoid rantings of the company’s critics, also suggests that Phorm’s critics are somehow being funded by competing companies. The end result of all this of course is to draw attention to the very critics it seeks to dismiss.

Toby Stephens at Computer Weekly:

The purpose of the site seems to be to plant the idea in people’s minds that the only reason that privacy campaigners object to Phorm’s DPI technologies is because Phorm’s competitors are paying them to do so.

Any chance we had of trusting what’s been said by either Phorm or the Home Office on the topic of DPI is now completely lost. I would have expected a company working on something so sensitive to have demonstrated much greater transparency in its approach to marketas I’ve said before, I don’t actually have a problem with what Phorm is trying to achieve, I have a problem with how it’s going about it.

But Phorm’s actions have forced me to climb off the fence and make my new position clear: I object to Phorm’s technologies and will be asking them not to profile visitors to my website. I will not use an ISP that participates in the Webwise service, even if there is an opt-out. I will avoid visiting websites that are early adopters of Phorm’s technologies. And I will urge my friends to do the same until I see a change in attitude from Phorm’s management.

Mark Thompson on the Computer Weekly Data Trust Blog:

This new ‘smear’ website Phorm have setup is a complete disgrace. It is an attack on private individuals the likes of which I wouldn’t expect from a company trying to convince people to trust them with their internet browsing history.

Now for those of you who are thinking “why don’t you just leave Phorm alone?” I offer one person’s reassessment of his position.  Huge respect to Blackbeak for publishing his reconsidered views.

Here’s a spoof of the story too.

A number of pro-Phorm people purely intent on trying to antagonise people and obfuscate the discussions have recently joined the NoDPI forum.  To them I say the same thing I have been saying here:

I’ve asked you here and in other forums to make public the legal opinion you have which argues against Dr Clayton and Alexander Hanff.  This isn’t about emotive language, it is about legality. Legality is fact.  Not an emotive issue.

Legality is not an issue you can think “Oh well, it doesn’t matter” and ignore it.  Any law student will tell you that ignorance is no excuse in the eyes of the law.  It is one of the first things you learn in a law class!  Until I see a verifiable legal opinion to the contrary (a QC opinion will do, with full name, address and references so I can verify it) I will consider Phorm’s Webwise product as it stands an illegal invasion of privacy.

If you can’t do that then please don’t waste my or other peoples’ time.


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