Phorm: smears and evasion

Tuesday, April 28, 2009 17:40 | Filed in Blogging, Media, Standards, Web

Phorm have set up a website to battle those people who it perceives as people who are against it, which it has begun by smearing these people as ‘privacy pirates’.

Over the last year Phorm has been the subject of a smear campaign orchestrated by a small but dedicated band of online “privacy pirates” who appear very determined to harm our company. Their energetic blogging and letter-writing campaigns, targeted at journalists, MPs, EU officials and regulators, distort the truth and misrepresent Phorm’s technology.

stop phoul

They have also suggested that a director of Privacy International, one Simon Davies of 80/20 Thinking has suggested that one of Phorm’s commercial competitors knew that anti-Phorm activity (letter writing, campaigns) would take place, and that there is something fishy about this.

Of course, Simon hasn’t singled out any individual person who he believes is suspicious, which is really a shame, because that would then allow Simon’s comments to be challenged under libel law if appropriate. And he’s also seemingly forgotten to mention that…

  • People opposed to Phorm might legitimately go to Phorm’s competitors with queries
  • As we approach the time of Phorm being used it is more likely that more people will actively campaign about it

…oh, and there’s also the fact that 80/20 Thinking, founded by Simon Davies, have done paid work for Phorm. This is mentioned, admittedly, but it ought to be right up there with a big flashing disclaimer. After all, 80/20 Thinking have said they will stop doing this work by August 2009, so they could still be wanting to take on more Phorm work…

Of course, there are no doubt some people attacking Phorm who are being deliberately misleading in the way they go about this, but the majority are simply ordinary people who object to it on whatever grounds. I object to it as a site owner: I don’t want any use of my site to be monitored by Phorm, nor my site to be scanned by them, so I opted out. If no interception of data occurs in relation to my site, and I, as a user, don’t have my traffic specifically intercepted unless I have opted in, then I don’t have a practical problem with it.

I would however urge people and sites to consider opting out — I have asked my local council whether they have a policy on this and whether they will opt out (more on that in a future post) — but ultimately it’s up to site owners and web users to decide for themselves. However, while I would urge those against it (including of course myself) to stick to the facts, I’d suggest that if “Stop Phoul Play” really wanted people to know “the truth” that they should maybe mention:

  • that the EU are taking legal action over Phorm
  • that Phorm admitted editing the Wikipedia article on Phorm to remove negative points
  • that if someone exercises their perfectly legitimate right to query this service, Phorm will label them ‘pirates’ (a rather perjorative, and indeed inaccurate term, when Phorm are the ones intercepting data and taking copies…)
  • That Stop Phoul Play are singling out individuals (companies is fine, kudos to El Reg for the mention) as anti-Phorm campaigners, when they aren’t prepared to identify the people behind Phorm (directors, owners) in the same manner. Fair’s fair, after all…

The whole Stop Phoul Play thing smacks a little of desperation to me, with quite a hint of “a bag of grapefruit”, as Baldrick would have put it [a case of sour grapes]. And I’m not the only one who thinks so: Bitterwallet have their take on it, and of course do The Register (although it’s only fair, since Stop Phoul Play gave them a mention).

Now different people do have different agendas. Some want Phorm’s service declared illegal. Phorm obviously don’t. I think it probably ought to be illegal for anyone (site visitors) who isn’t specifically opted in; I think it probably ought to be illegal for interception of site traffic for sites who have not opted in; I think it ought to be legal for it to spider sites to classify them (providing they provide a unique user agent for their spider and follow the robots.txt exclusion protocol).

However, it’s up to — as Phorm say — the courts to determine the legality or otherwise of the service. What I want to make sure is that traffic to and from my sites is not intercepted, and my sites are not spidered by Phorm (as I have opted out). That my browsing is not intercepted unless I have given my consent (as opposed to ‘intercepted but we won’t use it honest, guv’). That might not be ideal for some privacy campaigners, but it will do for me.

But by all means, read both sides of the argument. Make your own minds up. On the one hand, here’s Stop Phoul Play. On the other, here’s Bad Phorm. Once you’ve read the facts, if you’re a site owner, you may wish to opt out; you may wish to ask sites you use to opt out; or you may be perfectly happy with all of it.

I have arrived at my decision, but I’ll leave you to make up your own…

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1 Comment to Phorm: smears and evasion

  1. Jamie Dowling says:

    April 29th, 2009 at 3:49 pm

    It’s also a fact that despite claiming a legal opinion saying that “Webwise” is not breaking any laws, Phorm have yet to publish that opinion into the public arena.

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