Whatever your view on ISP-based behavioural targeting advertiser Phorm, you must admit it’s never dull for long. Claiming it is the victim…

image Whatever your view on ISP-based behavioural targeting advertiser Phorm, you must admit it’s never dull for long. Claiming it is the victim of a sustained campaign of smears from online “privacy pirates” who equate its behavioural targetting software with spyware, the company has now gone on the ultra-offensive with a new site, Stopphoulplay.com, to respond to mistruths in the media and blogosphere. The site says: “We have decided to expose the smears and set out the true story, so that you can judge the facts for yourself.” It has already been greeted with disbelief and scorn by some observers — Guardian columnist Paul Carr labeled it “absolutely the dumbest PR move in the history of the universe”.

Home Office “collusion”: And the site won’t stop the negative headlines appearing: today bbc.co.uk reports that Phorm advised the Home Office on a public advice document on whether the company’s ISP-based software is legal. An email obtained using the Freedom of Information Act and passed to the BBC — apparently a favourite tactic of the “privacy pirates” — from a Home Office official to Phorm’s legal representative says: “My personal view accords with yours, that even if it is ‘interception’, which I am doubtful of, it is lawfully authorised under section 3 by virtue of the user’s consent obtained in signing up to the ISPs terms and conditions.” CEO Kent Ertugrul writes in a letter to The Guardian that there was no “collusion” between Phorm and the Home Office: “This is untrue and misrepresents the way in which the British legal system works.” more after the jump

Phoul play: The Phoul Play site offers rebuttals, counter-claims and corrections for a string of negative stories, such as the European Commission’s declaration that UK privacy laws should be changed in light of opposition to Phorm or Virgin Media’s (incorrectly) reported move to cancel its relationship with the business. There are details on the tactics of leading anti-Phorm campaigners including Alex Hannf and Marcus Williamson, which the latter has already labeled (via Telegraph.co.uk) a smear on his character.

Will it work?: Phorm has been saying both publicly and privately in recent months that it has been looking to take hold of the debate surrounding it. At a second “town hall” styled meeting in London this month Ertugrul defended his company and — there’s definitely a trend here — attacked the know-nothing privacy campaigners and their scare tactics. There is some misunderstanding about the company’s Open Internet Exchange software in some quarters. But the increasing siege mentality, in which the company almost paints itself as the victim of a conspiracy from some concerted activists will only deepen many people’s suspicions. Both Wikipedia and Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) have already asked Phorm not to record visits by their users. And all this from a “pre-revenue” business that has yet to set a date for full deployment with any of its partners…

UPDATE: It appears the main purpose of the site is to immediately respond to all Phorm’s negative press. Sure enough, the company has now added its response to the “smear” that it “colluded” with the Home Office. “It is normal practice for businesses in whatever field they operate to engage with government regarding their services,” it says.

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  1. Midnight_Voice Wednesday, April 29, 2009

    (There might be more comments if your site worked with Firefox… but here I am specially using IE7 for you. Ho hum).

    When looking at the new Phoulplaythemanandnottheball site, you will find no better example of how off-beam (to put it charitably) Phorm are than the 'Blackbeak'link.

    It's represented on their site under 'This is how they work' as "Several individuals well known for their virulent stance on Phorm – including Alexander Hanff, Dephormation, Florence and Oblonsky – attacked the author in unsavoury and intimidating language."

    But if you follow the link which Phouldeeds handily provide, you find no such thing. Instead, you find Blackbeak initially presenting an 'Is Phorm so bad?' argument based on his natural disbelief that a respectable AIM-listed company (Phorm) would provide such a skewed and distorted picture of their system to the public, and that a major FTSE-100 company like BT would carry out illegal acts on its customers.

    And then you see the people listed above, and others, using the most moderate language, sweet reason, and the catalogue of unavoidable facts, to try to help Blackbeak to see things as they really are.

    And thus encouraged, and having looked up the many references given to him, and engaged in some very constructive debate with those who wrote the comments, he changes his mind, and writes a further article describing exactly what is wrong with Phorm; for which our protagonists thank him nicely.

    No threats, no intimidation, not even any harsh words, and certainly no money changing hands; just logic and good information holding sway.

    To anyone reading the Phoulandmephitic site, all you have to say is: Please – follows the links they give. And then judge for yourself if it backs up their claims – or, as in this case, backfires on them. And right royally, too.

  2. Dewi Jones Monday, May 4, 2009

    You see I have a problem!

    Phorm claimed in an "AIM" Market statement that BERR the Home Office ICO has said that Phorm was "fully compliant" with the Law.

    BERR & the Home office have publicly stated that they have never said any such thing!

    Plus I have a correspondence from the ICO part of which saying that this Section 3 interpretation is debatable!

    "Answers to Questions" is what we need Phorm.

    It is no good repeatedly saying "the world is flat" or even "the world is round" unless you produce the evidence to back it up!

  3. @Midnight_Voice:
    Thanks for the clarification. I wrote a comment to the site asking that they reflect my real views on the matter but they did nothing.

    I work in the industry; an advocate for web analytics an active member of the Web Analytics Association and author of a book Cult of Analytics.. I look at data every day. When I looked at Phorm it fooled me in the beginning because of the way they presented their system. I thought at first it was simply behavioral targeting, something I have no problem with because all data is anonymous. Web Analytics has to have privacy as it's holy grail so all data should be anonymous or truly opt-in.

    However when I went further prompted by the guys mentioned in this article (Alexander and Marcus) I did quite a bit of reading on how it actually works. The problem lies in 2 areas in my opinion.

    Firstly they can collect personally identifiable information. If you browse for instance Gmail your activity is mirrored by Phorm. This means they can potentially see all the information in the emails you open or write.

    Blatantly illegal.

    Secondly they do it without the users true consent. It's not opt in in the true sense of the word. BT/Phorm opt everyone in and then you have to opt-out (if you even know about it.) Even then it's still not clear as to whether you're simply opting out of getting the behavioral advertising or whether your sensitive private browsing history is still recorded anyway.

    Because of these two problems corruption is possible, no matter what Phorm say there are ways to use this kind of sensitive information. I am not accusing Phorm of being corrupt I am merely saying that their system as I encountered it should not be legal. My view is the system needs to be completely re-designed and publicly audited by some company like the ABCe prior to any trials with any company.

    The version of the software I read about is by my interpretation of the law illegal.

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