6 August 2008

Six degrees of separation between you and the advertisers.

The EU Commissioner, Viviane Reding, as asked the UK Government to clarify whether the use of the Phorm system is in breach of EU data protection laws in May 2008. the Government has to respond by August 2008.

Phorm is a digital technology company which has launched Open Internet Exchange ('OIX') and Webwise, which enable targeted advertising, based on the browsing habits of the users. Phorm has been in talks with some of the biggest ISPs in the UK; namely BT, Virgin Media; and TalkTalk, to this end. The attraction for ISPs and advertisers is clear as the closer the match the better. Advertisers are able to reach their target audience and the platform gets more revenue as the chances of the advertisements being clicked on by the end-user is far greater.

A quick read through the website of Phorm seems to suggest that this is a perfectly harmless activity which will improve the web experience of the user drastically. One has to wonder when an advertisement has improved the experience of its audience. Most of the time, online advertisements (just like their offline counterparts) are unwelcome at worst and informative at its best. But one struggles to see how they can stretch to improve the experience per se. The inflation of the experience as well as the constant use of the phrase 'protection of users` privacy' on the Phorm website, is a clear design by the company to hide the true nature of the surveillance taking place here.

Basically, Phorm will have equipment at ISPs which track the activities of the end user. Thus, it will note down the URL visited, search terms used and other relevant information. The IP address of the user is not captured, but a cookie with a unique number is installed on the browser of the end user.

The data collected is categorised and used to create the profile of the user. Hence, when the user visits a webpage whose adverts emanate from OIX, s/he is directed to adverts targeted to his/her profile.

BT is apparently considering starting a trial of the service in the near future. There have also been rumours of 'secret trials' having been conducted without the consent/knowledge of the end user.The Information Commission ruled in May that no action would be taken against BT as it was difficult to explain to users what was being done. However, it also ruled that any future use should only go ahead, with the consent of the users. The flaw in this ruling is quite apparent: surely the inherent difficult in explaining to the end-user what is being done, is still present: so it is very hard to understand how the nature of the difficulty has evolved so that now an explanation is more feasible.

The dangers inherent in this initiative (breach of privacy, breach of data protection etc) are very much apparent and it is very hard to see how the Government will be able to persuasively rationalise them. In addition, it is also very difficult to see the Commission approving of such a scheme. However, in the meantime, this does not put a stop to the launch of the Phorm initiative by the ISPs in the UK, which of course means that the end-user will be incredibly vulnerable until the Commission reaches a decision. A far better option, would have been to ask the ISPs not to launch this initiative until the Commission`s findings.
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