The Information Commissioner Office (ICO) has this week ruled that Phorm’s service must operate on an ‘opt in’ basis, rather than the ‘opt out’ model which the company had initially intended to deliver. Good. I do not know a single person who was happy with the proposed ‘opt out’ concept, and even would go so far as to say that every setback for Phorm (as long as it persists with opt out) is a victory for the progress of the web…

(Those unfamiliar the recent Phorm controversy can check here and here for background info)

Pretty strong words I know, but let me continue… – like most other journalists/bloggers/web users I have no problem with targeted advertising. However, Phorm’s insistence on the ‘opt out’ model is a different case entirely. Think of it this way; if someone covertly followed you around the local high street on a Saturday afternoon, before finally approaching you to tell you that, in addition to the shops you visited this afternoon, you might also enjoy x, y, z other similar shops. Would you:

a) Reply with a delighted ‘thankyou’ and offer to buy the benevolent samaritan a pint?

b) Mumble a polite ‘Ok, Thanks’ before nervously trying to escape to your car?

c) Tell them to stop following you, before calling for some manner of police/mental health service assistance?

Probably B, possibly C, but definitely not A, am I right? Well that’s because there’s just no getting around the fact that… spying on people is kinda creepy. As human beings we instinctively reject the concept of being subjected to covert surveillance – for whatever reason. Phorm proposes to monitor and analyse our long term net use so that it can provide us with more relevant ads. Consider the trade off; it hardly seems worth submitting to such intrusive surveillance for the petty gain of being able to ‘enjoy’ more relevant online advertising.

Phorm must feel like a very unwelcome guest to the targeted advertising party, and will burn with injustice at the hurdles it feels it is unfairly being presented with. After all, Google delivers targeted advertising to users based on their search terms (Yahoo is soon to begin trialling the same system) and Amazon provides returning customers with recommendations for items based on previous purchases, to cite just two examples of online firms keeping tabs on users. However these companies only engage users who willingly approach them. Phorm is not so much approaching us, as it is forcing its way uninvited into our web worlds, and then hoping we won’t be bothered enough to ask them to leave.

Phorm’s aims are harmless enough (and obviously massively beneficial for their corporate clients), but their methods are inherently creepy, and would surely set a precedent for further online surveillance systems. The issue is far broader than simply a question of targeted advertising, and it is perhaps unlucky for Phorm that they are becoming a defining initial case in a complicated area of online law-making.

To allow Phorm to progress as it intended would be to sacrifice the comfort of web users for the prize of corporate profit potential (a balancing act which has thus far been fairly well managed by regulators). To do so would be to invalidate all the progress of the Web 2.0 era of openness and transparency, and to reduce long-term development potential for short-term profit.

The market Phorm seeks to capitalise on only exists because we are increasingly comfortable with doing more and more online. Ironically most of the opposition Phorm is facing is down to the perceived threat to this state of affairs that most people feel it represents.

One perhaps feels slightly sorry for Phorm; we can all see that their product is largely worthless as an ‘opt in’ model (how many people would realistically choose to sign up?). However, as an opt out service it represents a creepy Stasi-type corporate spy service which threatens the ideals of many modern web concepts. It is becoming rapidly apparent that Phorm is a pretty lousy idea, and that no amount of PR spending can alter this fact – it is only unfortunate for its creators that this was not realised sooner.

Dejan Levi