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18 March, 2008

Important note: Phorm and other ad-targeting

In an open letter to the UK Information Commissioner, the Foundation for Information Policy Research (Fipr) has argued that implementation of Phorm, which targets adverts to users based on web habits, is illegal in the UK.

The letter states that such services work by scanning ('intercepting' is an emotive term, but seems apt) and analysing the content of traffic between users and the websites they visit, then classifying users to enable advertising to be targeted on their interests.

A key part of Fipr's argument is that "Phorm must not only seek the consent of web users but also of website operators".

Nicholas Bohm, general counsel at Fipr, said: "The need for both parties to consent to interception in order for it to be lawful is an extremely basic principle within the legislation [Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000], and it cannot be lightly ignored or treated as a technicality."
That quote is from the BBC's reporting of the issue, which also contains a response from BT, one of the ISPs planning to implement Phorm:
"Provided the customer has consented, we consider that there will generally be an implied consent from website owners."
Which is the point of this posting.

In the case of this website ( and subsidiary domains) consent is EXPLICITLY WITHHELD.

There. No excuses.

[Update 07/04/08: Having read Richard Clayton's rather technical review of precisely how Phorm's software will work, it might be helpful to issue a further clarification.

When a monitored visitor, er, visits a site for the first time, Phorm checks the site's robots.txt file. If the site owner blocks spidering by search engines, Phorm will – allegedly – honour the policy. However, "we work on the basis that if a site allows spidering of its contents by search engines, then its material is being openly published" i.e. that the site owner implicitly consents to traffic interception by Phorm.
This is not the case. Permission granted to Google, etc. is not extended to Phorm.

If Phorm want to publicise a User-Agent identifier I could use to define a usage policy independent of my policy for search engines, I'll consider implementing it. In the mean time, my search engine policy should not be considered any indication whatsoever of my policy for Phorm.

Which is, clearly and unequivocably, 'no, you may not track visitors to my website'.]

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