Commentary

Hear No Evil: ISP Deletes Consumer Complaints In Forums

In a comically inept move, U.K. Internet service provider BT Group has decided to delete posts on its forums about its deployment of Phorm's controversial behavioral targeting platform.

The ISP removed all current and prior comments, which dated back to at least February. One of the prior threads in the BT Beta forums went on for more than 200 pages, according to The Register.

A moderator for BT Group posted this explanation online: "Our broadband support forums are designed to be a place where customers can discuss technical support issues and offer solutions. To ensure that the forums remain constructive we're tightening up our moderation policies and will be deleting threads that don't provide constructive support."

When customers have so many concerns that they're moved to complain in writing, could BT really think that purging those comments is an effective response?

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If so, the company profoundly misunderstands online media. Attempting to squelch online speech -- even speech at a corporate Web site -- almost always results in calling more attention to the underlying matter. So far, BT's decision to censor the Webwise complaints has prompted articles in at least three outlets -- The Register, PC Pro and ISPreview (a U.K. forum for ISP-related news).

What's more, angry subscribers can always find ways to express their views, even if that means starting their own blogs. And it's a lot harder for companies to respond on a blogger-by-blogger basis than to address concerns that appear on a centralized forum.

BT should keep in mind subscribers have reason to be wary of Phorm --a company at the forefront of a new wave of behavioral targeting based on gleaning information from ISPs and then serving ads based on Web sites visited and search queries conducted. These types of platforms trouble privacy advocates because of the sheer volume of information collected. Consumer advocates say that even though the platforms don't collect subscribers' names, it's possible to figure out their identity by looking at their clickstream activity.

For this current test, BT is seeking users' opt-in consent. But the ISP has previously tested Phorm's system without informing users about the technology.

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