Berners-Lee Warns Against ISP-Based Ad Targeting

As Google is shaking up the U.S. online ad world with its move into behavioral targeting, news comes that another ad company, Phorm, is again under scrutiny in the U.K.

Earlier today, at a Houses of Parliament hearing organized by privacy activist NoDPI.org (No Deep Packet Inspection), Web founder Tim Berners-Lee warned against tracking people online. "It is very important that when [we] click we click without a thought that a third party knows what we're clicking on," he said, according to The Register. "I have come here to defend the internet as a medium."

The comments apparently prompted Phorm CEO Kent Ertugrul, who was present but hadn't been invited to speak, to address the panel from the floor, The Register reported. Ertugrul denounced opposition to ISP-based targeting as representing "neo-Luddite retrenchment," according to the newspaper.

Phorm's platform, which uses deep packet inspection technology, serves ads to people based on information about the sites they've visited gleaned through their ISPs. Phorm says that it doesn't store information about Web sites visited and that the targeting is anonymous, but privacy advocates are still concerned about the platform.

Recently, Phorm completed a test of its platform with BT Group, a U.K. broadband provider. BT notified consumers of that test and sought their consent, but didn't do so in the past. In 2006, BT Group secretly deployed Phorm's behavioral targeting platform in a two-week test that involved 18,000 users. News of the test was first reported last year by The Register.

The secret tests potentially violated Europe's sweeping data privacy laws. Since news about the tests broke, European privacy regulators have repeatedly asked the U.K. authorities whether they intend to take any action.

In the U.S., would-be Phorm rival NebuAd had to retreat from plans for ISP-based behavioral targeting in the face of opposition from privacy advocates and lawmakers.

Meanwhile, U.S. ISPs like AT&T have said they would seek subscribers' consent before selling information about their Web visits to marketers. But some of those companies also have said they think all behavioral targeting -- including programs like the one announced today by Google -- should require opt-in consent.

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3 comments about "Berners-Lee Warns Against ISP-Based Ad Targeting".
  1. Victor Tese from T2 Technology , March 11, 2009 at 8:17 p.m.

    With all due respect for Dr. Berners-Lee and other people who don't want other parties to know what they click on and what sites they visit on the web, I wonder how they feel about the giants like Google collecting, storing and not even anonymizing vast amounts of user information and now finally acknowledging it by going into BT? Has anyone ever doubted that this information had been stored for future use? And that there are smaller googlets also collecting user data although in smaller quantities? I don't understand why ISP's are single out on this? Why is DPI any worse than clean-cut collection of the traffic in much cleaner form - via pixels? If anything, making sense of the ISP-level data is far more difficult than of the pixel-based data and I'm not even sure anyone has really figured it out yet.
    I'm not saying BT is an innocent child: just drawing attention to something potentially much more serious than the mystic DPI-based BT. If by default we weren't tracked at all, anyone could then choose to find her own benefit in providing her web browsing information to any party. I don't think Google and the googlets are advocating such policies. And they better be if they pose as 'do no evil' guys.
    Dr. Berners-Lee: what's your opinion?

  2. Pierre Wolff from Livefyre Inc. , March 11, 2009 at 8:46 p.m.

    victor, i actually believe that various groups have been fighting the good fight against google, behavioral ad networks *AND* the ISPs. it's just the latter is the latest group to get involved and there's no way to block them at all, while you could block cookies fm your browser if you chose to. note google's announcement today has drawn some fire:

    http://arstechnica.com/web/news/2009/03/googles-interest-based-ads-try-to-address-privacy-worries.ars

    or

    http://www.mediapost.com/publications/?fa=Articles.showArticle&art_aid=101924

  3. Jim Dugan from PipPops LLC , March 11, 2009 at 9:34 p.m.

    Meghan McCain, the daughter of John McCain, who writes for The Daily Beast, was/is on Rachel Maddow's show and Rachel knew that what she had done today because of Twitter.

    One might want to remain private, but you'd be better off realizing that everything has changed. If you don't get it yet, let me suggest, not only do we give up our "privacy" when we walk out of the cave, but, many people feel a new need to share and also play defense to the "writings" of others.