Republished: Phorm launches the InPhorm Newsletter

Originally published on 29 June 2009

In a casual spare moment I clicked onto Phorms Website, once I got past the vomit evoking mess that is the Webwise Discover advert page, I noticed that there has been a bit of a shake-up since I last visited.

I certainly don't remember them having a newsletter called InPhorm (Will the play on words ever wear thin?) so I figured I'd give it a browse. Once again, Phorm are seemingly desperate to be viewed as no different to Google. Love them or hate them, there's no denying that Google is something completely different. Google isn't talking about putting kit into my ISP in order to analyse almost every aspect of my datastream, and Google is reasonably easy to avoid if you wish.

Read the following tidbit from the newsletter

Undoubtedly the most important development is the unveiling of Webwise Discover. For over a year, Phorm has been in the rather unusual position of being evaluated more on our revenue model than our consumer proposition. It's similar to talking about Google showing you advertising, while leaving out the search part. But no more.

The fact is our technology will allow ISPs to partner with websites to create a unique consumer experience; and Webwise Discover is a perfect example of this. The result of several years development, we have launched a technology that, rather than simply being a better website, has the ability to make all websites better.

Webwise Discover is the ultimate recommendation engine. All you'll need to do to get personalised content automatically is to browse the internet - no boxes to check, no forms to fill in. Just show up at any participating site and it will show you stuff that is right for you. It's the simple way to get a more interesting and useful browsing experience.

One of the major concerns that everyone has with the technology is detailed in that second paragraph. All you have to do to send Phorm your datastream is browse the internet, no horrible checkboxes to tick. Unless of course, you don't want Phorm knowing which sites you visit and when. Claims of anonymity are fine, but where's the proof? It's all dependant on trust, there's nothing to stop BT taking a peek at everything I visit, but the point is I (just about) trust them not to do it.

I can't say the same for 121Media (lets call a turd a turd shall we?). How can I trust a company that previously created malware (they claim adware, but it's still a turd) with something so precious as my privacy? Are you willing to allow a company that once allowed its software to be installed onto an unwitting users computer to analyze your traffic? All in order to serve you 'more relevant' ads? Because lets face it, that is what they are about, anti-phishing comes as standard in most modern browsers, and Discover appears to be something of a shortlived novelty.

So it'll provide you with links to websites that it believes are relevant to you, but aren't you smart enough to find most of them anyway? So far, I've yet to see anything to suggest that the websites it will offer will include any not using the OIX advertising network. So, to put it another way, they will provide a nice polished turd to point you towards sites containing more of their 'more relevant' adverts.

Perhaps I'm wrong, maybe Discover will list websites not affiliated with the OIX network (I expect to see a heavily edited quote on StopPhoulPlay if I am), but it doesn't change the underlying realities. This is a company determined to make money, and their past behaviour suggests that they don't have too many scruples about how they do it. Advertising is their game, and the advertising world is a tough game, it could be just too tempting to remove the anonymity filter from the system. Who would know? Not BT and not us, or at least not until far too late.

Now a fantastically optimistic paragraph says the following

Consumers in the market research we conducted responded with a level of enthusiasm which leaves no doubt as to the reception Webwise Discover will have as it is deployed. As part of our launch activities, we also held an evening reception with many of the top websites in the UK. The response was virtually the same everywhere: we like this and see how it creates value for us.

Which is absolutely great, until you take this into account. That's right, Phorm didn't exactly mention DPI in the survey. Perhaps because we wouldn't understand it, poor cretins that we are. The problem for Phorm is that those who have the basics explained to them don't like the idea. Those who understand DPI on a deeper level hate the idea.

I mentioned recently that I hadn't spoken to anyone who didn't like the idea of Phorm once it was explained to them, that has now changed. I mention it because honesty is an important part of a balanced argument. This person was not against it, but also wasn't for it. The view was that as the internet was not used very much, she didn't think there were any privacy implications for her. Frankly, that's about the best that Phorm can hope for!

Although it isn't mentioned in the News letter, Phorm do have a link leading to this article by the ISBA - 'The Voice of British Advertisers' - which calls the EU's actions over Phorm a bit premature (exact words are - EU is getting ahead of itself). I think this is supposed to be taken as support for Phorms position, which it is, but it's hardly surprising. An Advertising Body in support of a company who believe they can increase advertising revenue. Hmmmmmm...... did not see that coming!

ISBA, the voice of British advertisers, says concerns about the new technology ? which can help refine and personalise the advertising content received by online consumers ? ?can and should be addressed by the UK?s successful system of advertising self-regulation.?

I'm no expert in the advertising field, but I'd say the issues raised have bugger all to do with the advertising itself. In fact, I'd say the whole debate centres on the underlying technology, the adverts are just the end results. Most people tolerate adverts on the net, they are an unfortunate necessity, but that's not the same as saying it's OK to track our every move on the net.

I'm assuming that the "UK's successful system of advertising self-regulation" refers to the Advertising Standards Authority. How they factor into the debate is unclear, OK they do deal with the placement of adverts as well as the content, but I doubt their remit extends to the current debate. In fact, I'd go further than that. Being an agency funded by the very people the regulate, I'd say they have absolutely no business making any form of decision about what does and does not get placed into a telephone exchange. I doubt that anyone at the ASA is qualified to understand the technology, and I doubt anyone could believe that there would be no bias in their decision.

The technology has already been given the green light by the Information Commissioner?s Office, the UK?s data watchdog. And earlier this year, as an example of the strength of the self-regulatory system, the Internet Advertising Bureau, in consultation with industry bodies including ISBA, published its Good Practice Principles for behavioural targeting. Ten businesses have initially committed themselves to the principles, including Google, Microsoft, Platform A, Yahoo! and Phorm.

The fact that the ICO cleared such an unpopular technology is one of the reasons that the EU is involved. You cannot use the cause as a defence against the cause itself, that would lead to a paradoxial world. Whilst the ISBA may have published it's guidelines for Good Practice Principles, it still fails to address the underlying issue. And for those who have forgotten, it is this;

Phorm want to read every page you read, and then make a note of anything of interest therein. They promise not to record that it was you that read it, simply that your number viewed that category.

A world where adverts are worth more money, don't think anyone can claim that the ISBA doesn't have a vested interest in this one.

I'll post anymore of Phorms astounding tidbits as and when I find them.