Very poor phorm

Advertisers should not be allowed to spy on net users' browsing habits

Isn't online advertising marvellous? I go to the New Statesman website to look up the article I wrote on Phorm, the behavioural targeting advertising company, in March 2008. And there it is, right at the top of the page: a Google ad for Phorm. That Phorm is advertising using the company it intends to treat as its first true competitor is as ironic as the Phorm tagline, "Creating two revolutions: in online advertising and in privacy."

Well, perhaps not ironic. Phorm can claim privacy-enhancing features for its web-tracking service, but they are just that - "enhancing", not "guaranteeing". And when it comes to privacy of online communications, its technology is more degrading than enhancing.

Phorm's technology dials direct into your internet service provider's network and tracks your web surfing in order to deliver targeted ads. Picking a handful of keywords from each of the websites you visit, it attempts to build a picture of your interests, assigning you to segmented channels that serve ads it believes will cater to your tastes. Google serves up ads based on the page you are looking at now. Phorm will serve ads based on what you have looked at in the past.

The Information Commissioner has already made clear that, in order to deploy Phorm within data protection principles, ISPs must obtain users' explicit consent. What's not so clear is whether ISPs are legally able to intercept the communications, between web users and website owners, that make up browsing the web at all. Unless the ISPs have the explicit consent of users and website owners, they are likely to be breaking laws that govern interception of communications in the UK.

Because of this, Phorm has been responsible for a third revolution, or at least a resistance. When stories about the firm broke in January, so, too, did consternation break out among a number of internet users - computer experts, lawyers and ordinary consumers. Establishing websites such as, these people started circulating advice and tools for others outraged by Phorm to circumvent the technology, and to register their objections with elected officials.

When news hit that BT had conducted secret Phorm trials on its own customers without seeking consent, the actions increased. Campaigners picketed BT's annual general meeting, some even buying shares in the company to make sure their concerns were heard at board level. Rebuffed by the Interception Commissioner ("not my job"), one individual handed a dossier to the City of London Police, who declined to pursue the case because it was too complex.

Now concerned citizens are holding a whip-round to pursue the issue in the courts. Whether this will affect deployment of the technology is not clear - but an anticipated second round of BT trials has not materialised at the time of going to press.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 06 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Perils of power