Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Phorm Town Meeting

By the end of Phorm's "2nd Town Hall Meeting" it became obvious that the company is still trying to launch a product with both hands tied behind its back.

It's structure means that Phorm's online behavioural advertising service will only be successful if internet service providers implement it, then successfully market it to individual users, advertisers and web site owners. At that point, the company says, advertisers will experience less wastage in advertising spend, content owners will find it easier to monetise content, web site owners can charge more for space, and end-users will see more relevant ads as they browse.

Exactly what this means in commercial terms is naturally unclear. And Phorm rightly points out that it would be wrong for it to release the details of ISPs' trials or take-up incentives likely to be offered to ISPs' customers, at least until the ISPs are good.. and... ready..... to...... launch....... After 7 years of development, Phorm says it has learned to be patient - a revolution in the internet space.

It seems fairly pointless to have public meetings to talk about offering "choice" when you have no product in the market and the meat of your proposition is under wraps for commercial or regulatory reasons. Nevertheless, Phorm chose the opportunity to engage in further damage limitation on the privacy front and to set the commercial context for its service with a rundown on the online advertisting market.

All the legal points have been made on the privacy front, and don't bear repeating here - though I'll summarise them at the SCL's Information Governance conference. Phorm seems to think they've all gone away, or will be made to go away by launch. Network opt-out was mentioned. Network opt-in is preferred, as is a way to block the service altogether, so that I don't need to store either their opt-in or opt-out cookies. Having to choose whether to store Phorm's opt-in or opt-out cookies is only a choice about how you use Phorm's service, not a choice between using its service and not. Phorm says the current cookie practices are less transparent than its own service will be. From a user standpoint this doesn't deal with the point that I can choose not to go to certain sites, and to clear their cookies selectively, but I can't as readily avoid Phorm's service - or choose to use it on some sites and not others - if it's being run at the ISP level. That "choice" doesn't feel very personalised at all, and personalisation is at the heart of how the web is developing. Phorm asks why the likes of [Google and Facebook] don't have "town meetings" to explain their privacy policies and settings, but I can't think of a venue big enough - and of course they do constantly explain and respond to privacy queries from their massive, global communities in a very public way, online, where everyone can participate.

Phorm also appears to be creating some kind of moral panic by saying that it is part of the solution to preserving the humble newspaper - not to mention journalistic integrity. Shock, horror: journalists are apparently being asked to insert certain keywords in their stories to help attract the right traffic to their newspaper's online ads. Apparently, if Phorm were implemented and used by [everybody] content publishers would not [have to] do this. But the newspapers I read from time to time don't seem all that averse to coupling themes and stories with advertising in their offline manifestations, so it's hardly the end of the world as we know it. And I don't see how newspapers can escape people's desire to see their content unbundled any more than the record companies could. Their challenge is to keep innovating, as Eric Schmidt told US newspapers yesterday. Phorm suggests that the major ad service operators (Google, Facebook et al) aren't entitled to their current or growing flows of advertising revenues. The market will no doubt decide, but this suggestion ignores how those companies finance their own core businesses, which millions and millions of people clearly find very compelling - apparently more so than limited bundles of "news". It also ignores the importance of search and online communities for newspapers' content, not to mention ad deals.

Ulimately, comparisons with Google and Facebook highlight the fact that Phorm is not a bottom-up phenomenon. It's something that will only happen if big telecoms providers say so, and that collides with the Web 2.0 ethos. This, coupled with the Orwellian privacy issues - whether real or perceived - makes Phorm's marketing job very much harder.


Active Investor said...

Excellent account, thanks.

Pragmatist said...

Thank you.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for that report. Good point about the "opt-out" myth: add to the HOSTS file and you have no internet access at all - that is NOT giving customers freedom of choice. Freedom of choice is freedom to be able to go straight to wwwDOTmychoiceDOTcom, not be routed through Phorm-supplied servers desite being "opted-out" on their terms. Too many of the Press and MPs have been misled by Phorm over this.

Anonymous said...

Forget the ethics of behavioural advertising and how the data is collected for a few minutes and consider the more serious implications of this...

If this Phorm equipment is allowed into ISPs we have all sorts of security risks unleashed upon us.

Not least this very interesting one as outlined by Richard Clayton in his article "Adding into the CNI", archived at

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