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Thursday, 5 June 2008

Bad Phorm?


Back in February, I commented on the Open Internet Exchange initiative being planned by Phorm, whereby and major ISP partners BT, Virgin Media and Talk Talk will be paid for allowing all the web browsing by their customers to be trawled for advertising purposes.

Not a lot was known about the initiative at the time, but negative news has been snowballing since, and opponents are taking to the streets. The Register is maintaining a dossier, known as "The Phorm files", and a "No Deep Packet Inspection" street demonstration is timed for BT's AGM on 16 July 2008. See also the Facebook Group "Save UK internet privace - reject ISPs that use Phorm".

Incidentally, you might wish to be more wary than usual of the Wikipedia entry on this subject.

The concerns raised are similar to those related to Facebook's "Beacon" initiative that led FB to significantly alter the functionality (though you might wish to be somewhat sceptical of that Wikipedia entry too!). The chief one being that there seems no reliable way to ensure that you are really opted-out. However, the Phorm scenario is worse than with Beacon, because the inspection, storage and use of data is at the ISP layer, making it much harder in practical terms to avoid the service than if it was operated, say, on a site-by-site basis. In other words, you can't decide simply not to visit certain sites if you doubt that the opt-out would actually prevent the abuse of your personal data. Instead, you would need to switch ISPs. However, you may not actually be able to avoid using one of the "problem" ISPs (e.g. at a friend's place, work, or via an internet cafe). And what if all the ISPs join the initiative?

Further, as the Guardian has noted, the challenge for Phorm is to reconcile two apparently contradictory statements:
"Advertisers are told that it will be able to profile the surfers, based on where they have visited, and target them through that uniquely numbered cookie. But users are told they will not be identifiable. It's the apparent contradiction in those statements that has infuriated so many."
If you are remotely concerned, now is the time to make your feelings known to your ISP, your MP, and participating advertisers.
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