Commentary

Advocates Target ISP Working With Phorm

Behavioral targeting company Phorm hasn't launched yet, but is already facing more pushback than even the staunchest privacy advocates likely anticipated. The latest news is that Phorm opponent Alex Hanff is calling for people to picket the annual meeting of BT -- one of the Internet service providers that's working with Phorm.

"The purpose of the protest is to make BT shareholders aware of the past and planned use of allegedly illegal interception technologies to sell behavioral profiles to an ex-spyware company," he said, according to a report today in the U.K. paper The Register.

At the same time, an anti-Phorm petition in the U.K. has drawn more than 13,000 signatories to date. The petition, stating that Phorm's plan "would result in the browsing habits of the majority of the UK population being sold to a third party for advertising purposes," warns that "the opt out system for this technology is vague and unproven."

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"Surely this must be a breach of privacy laws, if not then the privacy laws need to be changed to cover such invasive technology," the petition states.

These same arguments are increasingly surfacing here. Advocates say marketers shouldn't snoop on people's Web-surfing activity to send them ads without first obtaining users' consent.

If behavioral targeting in general has raised advocates' ire, platforms that rely on data from Internet service providers especially trouble privacy rights groups. That's because ISPs know every site users' visit and every search query they make. Online ad companies argue that the targeting is all done anonymously, so that companies only know which sites particular users have visited, but not their names or e-mail addresses.

But the prospect of ISP-based targeting is so troubling that lawmakers have asked to meet with the Internet service provider Charter Communications before it follows through on a plan to share data with behavioral targeting company NebuAd.

Phorm is poised to launch soon in the U.K., following which it intends to launch in the U.S. as well. If increasing public pressure in the U.K. results in Phorm deciding to seek users' consent before targeting them, it seems likely that the company will ask U.S. users for their agreement as well. If nothing else, declining to do so would put the company in a very awkward position of explaining why European Web users have more privacy rights than U.S. consumers.

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