Opting Out Of Phorm: two easy steps

Tuesday, April 21, 2009 7:20 | Filed in Blogging, Media, Standards, Technology

Recap: Phorm is a company which seeks to offer targeted advertising by monitoring browser behaviour — they scan websites to see what they contain and they monitor users’ browsing behaviour to see which sites they visit, in order to serve up what they believe will be more effective advertising. Some people have privacy concerns over this.

As long as it is an opt-in service for users and website owners, I don’t have a problem with it. As far as website owners go, I’d even settle for it being opt-out via a robots.txt exclusion to specifically exclude Phorm. However, they have not supplied their agent’s name, so there is currently no way of excluding Phorm without also excluding search engines, which I certainly don’t want excluded.

So, as I said earlier, I would choose to opt out this domain. And when I noticed that
Wikipedia had already opted out and that Amazon had already opted out, I thought it was probably time to start the ball rolling.

For those people who simply want to opt out, and are not interested in my meanderings to find the correct path, you may wish to skip directly to the opt-out procedure.

Meanderings Step 1

Also known as “visit Phorm website, read instructions for site owners wishing to opt out”.

Minor problem with this plan: no detail is supplied on the blog, on the ‘opt-in, opt-out’ page, or on the FAQs which tells you how you can opt out your site. Yet it is obviously possible, as Wikipedia and Amazon have done it…

Meanderings Step 2

Thus began ‘Meanderings Step 2′, also known as ‘so where’s their contact form, then?’

I began this process on Monday 20th April, visiting the Phorm website and filling in a contact form. I noticed some problems with the contact form — for a start, it wouldn’t work until I enabled javascript — and it was suggesting that certain fields were ‘mandatory’ such as telephone number and company. For a company that is so sure it is not breaching our right to privacy, I am a little concerned about their understanding of The Data Protection Act which specifically states:

it states that anyone who processes personal information must comply with eight principles, which make sure that personal information is: [...]

  • Adequate, relevant and not excessive

Information Commissioner’s Office: Data Protection Act — The Basics

I would argue that knowing my telephone number, and the company I work for are excessive for the purposes of me asking that my personal domain be opted out, particularly when I have requested to be contacted by email. I would have no objection to these fields being optional — some people may indeed wish to be contacted this way — but mandatory? Nope.

There was another problem with their contact form. The form labelling was shit. Well, I say shit, I really mean non-existent. Look at this:

<span id="label-firstname">First Name*</span><br />
<input type="text" name="firstname" class="input"/>

You should of course be using a label element, with the for attribute referencing the name/id of the form control which it relates to. If you are not doing this, it is going to be extremely hard for people who require a screenreader to be able to contact you (or Phorm in this case).

Not to mention the fact that the form relies on javascript for error messages and form submission (I’m not taking the stance that this automatically makes it inaccessible, mind you — they might have tested with accessibility technologies — although I would be prepared to wager they haven’t). They use a CAPTCHA but do have the decency to make this either visual or audio, so that’s a plus.

So anyway, I submitted my request…

phorm opt out request (flickr)

What I said was:

I wish to opt my domain out of all Phorm/Webwise activity. Please do not monitor any use of thepickards.co.uk or examine or scan any part of my domain for keywords or content.

Please confirm via email that this is complete. Could you please also make it more clear on your website how site owners can opt out because I could not find this information.

This contact form relies on javascript and the form labelling is incorrect, which may cause problems for users with screenreaders. Can you advise whether these problems are to be resolved and, if so, with what timescale?

My request to Phorm

Opt Out Procedure — Step 1 (Request)

However, upon checking the Badphorm website, it would appear that BT suggest webmasters should opt out by emailing website-exclusion{at}webwise.com. The opt out procedure is also clearer on the BT site, so there’s no need for the extra stuff about making it clearer or sorting out the contact form.

This time, I have simply said:

I would just like to request that thepickards.co.uk (and any subdomains) are opted out of Phorm/webwise and similar operations. I do not want any of the pages on thepickards.co.uk to be scanned for keywords or examined for the type of content they contain. I do not want any traffic from thepickards.co.uk to be monitored or intercepted in any way by your service, as I consider the scanning and profiling of visitors to my site to be an infringement of their privacy.

I have also used the contact ‘phorm’ on the Phorm website to contact you this morning, but have been directed to this email address as the appropriate place to ask to opt out, so I thought I’d better ask here as well.

Could you please confirm that I have been added to your ‘opted out’ list.

My email to website-exclusion{at}webwise.com

Opt Out Procedure — Step 2 (confirmation)

Let’s make this explicitly clear: I have contacted Phorm directly; I have also contacted the webwise email address BT provide specifically for this purpose. I have requested that my website opts out. Should they choose not to opt me out, it will be against the wishes I have specifically expressed directly to them, and I would reserve the right to take any appropriate action.

They have been made aware of my wishes; as far as I am concerned, I have opted out. Whether or not I hear back from them, I have opted out. I have also made it fairly explicit here what my wishes are, too.

It’s just a case of waiting for confirmation… however long that takes. Oh, hang on, an email seems to have arrived while I was typing that last bit…

Thank you for your submission to the Phorm website exclusion list. If there are no obvious grounds to doubt the legitimacy of the request the URL will be blocked as soon as possible, usually within 48 hours.

Requests must be made by the legitimate owner of the domain. If we have questions regarding your domain Phorm may take a number of steps, including attempting to contact the domain administrator by email for confirmation of this request. If the request remains questionable and is not confirmed within 10 days, the URL will be removed from the exclusion list and an email will be sent informing you of this decision.

Publisher Exclusion Request Autoreply

It really is that simple. So if you don’t want Phorm/Webwise to monitor what your site visitors are browsing, if you don’t want them to scan your site without telling you, email them at website-exclusion@webwise.com.

I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether or not you approve of Phorm (obviously I don’t, but I do believe in people making their own minds up); but if you don’t, there’s really no excuse for not opting out. It really is that easy.

However, if you are not on a self-hosted blog — e.g. if you are on livejournal.com, or blogspot.com, or wordpress.com, it may not be quite that easy. But it’s still not likely to be particularly difficult. Livejournal opted out the whole domain and all subdomains just because someone asked them nicely. If you don’t self-host, why not ask your blogging provider nicely?

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

27 Comments to Opting Out Of Phorm: two easy steps

  1. Rich Pedley says:

    April 21st, 2009 at 9:11 am

    I hate small comment forms :(

    Anyway, for ISP users where their ISP is utilising or just testing Phorm opting out isn’t that simple.

    To opt out your browsing still goes via the phorm servers – before bypassing the filtering. If you have opted in obviously going to their servers make sense – but having to go via them even after opting out?

    You would have no assurances that they weren’t filtering, or plain monitoring sites you visit.

    Onto opt out for websites – well if enough the of the big boys opt out then phorm becomes useless and hopefully the pile of **** it is will be kicked into touch before it really gets off the ground.

    Having said all that – surely the ads that it serves can only take place on sites that have opted into the service to show the ads. Can’t see many people doing that.

    I won’t opt out – as it should only be an opt in service. But I will keep an eye out for the relevant robots exclusion.

  2. Gary Miller says:

    April 21st, 2009 at 12:37 pm

    Thanks for the info Mike and Jack. Just sent my opt-out request.

  3. Pete says:

    April 21st, 2009 at 12:42 pm

    Phorm really should be opt in.

    To intercept your communications, they need your consent first.

    To use your copyright content they require a licence obtained in advance. If they use your trademark (eg to forge cookies) they might want to glance at the law of trademark too.

    In the unlikely event that Phorm does get its spyware off the ground, a copyright infringement action against them will help get the message across.

    They cannot intercept communications or steal content without consent.

  4. PJH says:

    April 21st, 2009 at 8:59 pm

    What’s this ‘opt-out’ stuff about?

    Aren’t Phorm et-al required to seek consent for an opt-in policy?

    Both for the websites concerned, and more importantly, for the people using those websites?

  5. JackP says:

    April 21st, 2009 at 9:16 pm

    It depends. As I understand it, there is no requirement for Phorm to have my explicit consent to spider my site, determine what the content is, and classify it accordingly. Search engines do this.

    However, where they may be a legal issue is with interception: if they intercept data visitors are sending to me, or I (through my website) am sending to them, then that is a different issue, and the one that people (including me) seem to think that there is a legal requirement to opt-in.

    By choosing to opt-out entirely, I am covering both the bit where I don’t feel they need explicit approval, and the bit where I feel they do, as irrespective of how the legal challenge ends up re:opt-in/out, I want to be opted out for me and my visitors. I therefore have no problem with telling them this…

    [As I understand it, Phorm have said it will be opt-in from the point of view of people browsing, which is certainly a step in the right direction]

  6. Paul H says:

    April 21st, 2009 at 10:59 pm

    There is actually a legal issue with what Phorm’s webwise system does…

    At present Phorm/BT explain that the system “Takes A Copy” of the web page your visitor requests when they download any web page whilst Webwise is working (in fact, based on what they have said so far, even if the user is opted out, the data is still intercepted – I’m not clear if it is then copied and not used or not copied)

    Anyway, that copy (of your website content) is done without your license to them to do this because youdid not Opt In. Did you notice there how I said Opt IN?

    This is a legal problem because there is the Copyright Act. And it does apply to your website.

    Opt out if you wish, but in law you should not need to. If you are technically skilled and you host your own site, then why not watch for Phorm/Webwise inercepting your data ad using it? Put a notice on all your web pages to notify any DPI operators such as Phorm that you will charge a fee for any usage of your site data without your opt in. Track their usage. Send them a bill (the ISP who is running the system). You decide how much to charge for each page impression used.

    More important than all of the above is that you actually tell the people in power what you think of this situation. Write to your MP and say what you think of the use of this technology.

    Excellent blog. Thought provoking and with very valuable information for us all. The future of private communication is at stake when there are people who want to do what Phorm and our ISPs want to do.

    Phorm must be stopped.
    Our ISPs need regulating. BT should be in court for the trials in 2006 & 2007.
    There’s nothing wrong with advertising.
    But “Deep Packet Inspection” for adverts is wrong.


  7. JackP says:

    April 21st, 2009 at 11:08 pm

    Oh: for those of you on facebook, you may also wish to look at Paul H’s group Bad Phorm!, which has a lot of information and links. While you’re on, also consider visiting the ‘official’ (?) bad phorm website…

  8. Paul says:

    April 22nd, 2009 at 12:31 am

    Yeah you can definately call it the official Bad Phorm website. Neither of us knew of our namesake’s existence when we created these sites… badphorm.co.uk is excellent.

  9. Seb Crump says:

    April 22nd, 2009 at 7:56 am

    I personally whole-heartedly agree that opt-out data interception, analysis and making profit from users browsing the web does not seem to meet the relevant legal thresholds. I’m watching the EU action with interest.

    However, I’m not so sure about the copyright of site owners argument.

    At present Phorm/BT explain that the system “Takes A Copy” of the web page your visitor requests when they download any web page whilst Webwise is working (in fact, based on what they have said so far, even if the user is opted out, the data is still intercepted – I’m not clear if it is then copied and not used or not copied)

    Paul H

    This sounds like any caching system or what search engines do, i.e. what happens when you put content on the web. While there are some techniques for controlling search engine robots and caching they are not 100% foolproof and rely on technologies further down the line playing ball.

    While it seems a reasonable suggestion that publishers should choose who can ‘copy’/re-present the content, I’m not sure it’s practicable on the web through the suggested licensing scheme. Doesn’t that start to head into the censorship/’who can read my content’ arena?

    [disclaimer: personal views]

  10. Dave says:

    April 25th, 2009 at 10:14 am

    i have also requested an opt out, as have concerns that the adverts being served may be inappropriate for the sites i run (which are for children), but to the end user its the site thats displaying them so we get the bad press.


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