Private Emails Reveal BBC Considering Blocking ‘Insidious’ Phorm

Many senior BBC executives want to follow Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) and Wikipedia by opting out of on-net behavioural ad targeter Phorm – a blow which could trigger a damaging flood of similar requests. A Freedom Of Information request has uncovered a flurry of private emails exchanged in the last few months, as the Beeb and the commercial BBC Worldwide wing brainstormed what to do about the system, which wants to help publishers better target ads by anonymously categorising ISP customers’ every web visit. The emails reveal…

— Future media and technology controller Anthony Rose (pictured) thinks Phorm is “a flawed business model … I don’t see Phorm surviving long-term, which would limit the amount of time and energy that we need to devote to Phorm”. He’s satisfied the data collected by Phorm is anonymous, but brands the collection method “insidious”. He says the BBC could opt out – but he’s fearful of depriving ISPs the extra revenue that would come with their use of the service.

— BBC’s legal and business affairs head Kate Leece in April said execs “are discussing the question of whether the BBC should in fact opt out of Phorm without further delay”. She was advised: “If Amazon are taking this stance on Phorm (opting out), then yes, in the interest of upholding privacy issues, I think we must consider, too.” Noting the EC’s recent criticism of the UK government for green-lighting Phorm, Leece considered opting out “until such time as this is resolved”.

— Archive controller and former BBC.co.uk controller Tony Ageh was advised to opt out, on the theoretical basis that Phorm would use BBC-related traffic for commercial gain, by tech pundit Bill Thompson, who called Phorm “reprehensible, but not illegal“.

— Future media’s chief technical architect Dirk-Willem van Gulik and digital distribution controller Richard Cooper have discussed technical methods for stopping Phorm from using BBC.co.uk users’ traffic data. Cooper says Phorm has commercial value for publishers and ISPs but, “from a technical perspective, it’s evil“. Van Gulik said it’s “not an option” to block Phorm without also hiding BBC.co.uk from search engines, but said Auntie could ask Phorm to be blacklisted. Alternatively, BBC.co.uk could warn users that Phorm may be monitoring their clicks, he wrote.

Auntie’s worried the public outcry will draw complaints about behavioural targeting BBCWW already carries out, albeit not at the ISP-level. Leece: “A key concern is impact on BBC.com’s use of (targeting vendor) Audience Science for behavioural targeted advertising as, whilst technology different, public may see as the same.”

The internal debate culminated in BBC Online controller Seetha Kumar’s public blog post this week – a holding statement that plays a waiting game and is leaving a final decision until government ministers respond to the EC’s criticism. Phorm plans to unveil a new consumer product on June 3, has completed a trial with BT (NYSE: BT) and is embarking on a trial with Korean ISP SK. It criticises the “privacy pirates who appear very determined to harm our company”. We have invited comment on the BBC views.

Update: Phorm tells paidContent:UK its upcoming product launch “would also benefit all websites, even non commercial sites like the BBC”: “In doing this, we

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