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Phorget it

By Dave Birch posted Jun 10 2008 at 12:50 PM

[Dave Birch] I have to write something about tracking and tracing, for unspecified purposes. Broadly speaking, and within some bounds, I want to be tracked and traced because I want a better service, more useful adverts, that sort of thing. I remember someone telling me that in countries with strict laws about the collection of personal information for marketing purposes, you get more junk mail because the originators cannot target the offers. If you know I hate golf, why send me stuff about golfing holidays? The goal is to get to the point where companies are not supply advertising by information relevant to my state and relationships. If I'm in a Forum about writing Dungeons & Dragons adventures, then a post from a company providing some useful tips and a link to their adventure-writing software is not really an advertisement, because it's something the community is happy to see. But how to get to this harmonious balance: should my information be under the control of the companies or me? You must remember Phorm.

Phorm said it was setting up a new online advertising platform called the Open Internet Exchange, which any Web site will be allowed to join. Proceeds from ads that are shown on these publishers' sites will be shared with BT, Carphone Warehouse and Virgin Media, which together represent more than two-thirds of the Internet access market in Britain... The three Internet providers have agreed to give Phorm access to customers' surfing records, letting it track a Web user's every move.

[From Providers get a piece of ad income - International Herald Tribune]

Is this acceptable? Wouldn't I prefer to control my my personal browsing habits and partition them, parcelling out the data to people who I think relevant? Or, to put in another way, CRM or VRM? Since the original trials, Phorm have changed the system (remember, it is operated by your ISP, not by Phorm) to provide for an opt out, but I assume that ISPs will incentivise me heavily to opt in because

Phorm could be the future, a future in which targeted advertising is essential to the business model of an ISP.

[From The law of Phorm | OUT-LAW.COM]

This seems reasonable to me, but within some pretty strict bounds. For one thing, if my mobile operators knows that I'm ringing a bank's mortgage enquires line, can then they bombard me with junk mail about mortgages? I hope not, and I wouldn't expect the same from my ISP: I they know I've been looking at Abbey National's mortgage offers, can they just sell this information to the highest bidder in a carousel of mortgage companies? Wait, I assert my moral right as the author of that idea...

I tried to understand Richard Clayton's detailed explanation of how it all works, so I hope I'm doing it justice by paraphrasing here: in essence, the system works by forging a cookie that appears to come from whatever website you go to, but actually comes from the Webwise server. That way, they have the same "ID number" in every cookie, so the server can look at all the websites you've been to when you visit a new one, and therefore present highly-targetted adverts. SInce the system doesn't know who you are, it's not invading your privacy. Of course, since the ISP can connect with ID number with the IP address, it's hardly anonymous...

Anyway, I can't see how messing about with cookies can help here, or why it's got anything do with being an ISP. I don't expect targetted adverts from my water company or my electricity company (they do insist on sending junk mail in their bills but it goes straight in the bin). There are literally just the pipe, and that's what an ISP is too. And there's no connection between the targetting and my digital identity. If I'm logged in somewhere as Dave from CHYP, I'd expect to see completely different adverts from when I'm logged in as just Dave, or Leadbelly Gutbucket, but that's between me and the people I'm logged into, not me and the ISP.

There's an article about Phorm in this week's Economist with an excellent quote from Richard:

Proponents of behavioural targeting, he concluded, “assume that if only people understood all the technical details they’d be happy. I have, and I’m still not happy at all.”

[From Monitor | Watching while you surf | Economist.com]

In summary, if I can opt in to Phorm through a specific digital identity that I may choose to use in some circumstances, then I think I'll probably do it. If not, then there's too much to go wrong.

These opinions are my own (I think) and are presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public [posted with ecto]


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