Phorm over function?

Published Tuesday, April 22nd 2008

A 2 minute read 510 words

Phorm is, and will continue to be for some time I think a hugely divisive issue online. BBC have another story today about it, this time having spoken to the various security companies like F-Secure, McAffee etc about whether they will flag a message to the user about whether Phorm has been enabled or not.

Phorm management have come out saying "it's only a cookie", the same as many other sites use to provide tracking (such as Google Analytics), interactivity (such as shopping carts or ID maintenance on numerous retail sites), or a small amount of memory (configuration information for the BBC home page for example).

The difference, though, is that the information is being used differently because data is being shared.

This is what got the Information Commissioners Office's back up because sharing data between companies without users opting in is a breach of the Data Protection Act - "But not if it's anonymous data" say the legal eagles from Phorm - and technically they are correct. This is a case of adopting the letter of the law rather than the spirit of it.

Tim Berners-Lee came out saying he would move ISP if he found out they were using Phorm and whilst I admire his line I fear the vast majority of consumers won't care or rather just won't be bothered to switch - just see how many people actually switch bank or utilitiy companies.

For me this is a case of the slow erosion of privacy at the hands of our ISPs. In a massively competitive market where margins are being squeezed ever tighter, the sale of their user data to Phorm must have seemed like the proverbial golden goose.

It won't take long for someone to cotton onto the flip side of this and market aggressively on the privacy front. Talk Talk made huge inroads as an ISP on the back of their "The Internet should be free" campaign with regard to price (being bundled as it was with other services). Who will be the first to play the "Internet should be private" card and sign up to a deal not using Phorm or other tracking software?

In my cynical world view, I think the security firms have realised this and it is 99% of the reason for why they are looking at it all as the anti-spy, -mal and -virus software is worth billions.

In real terms Phorm isn't actually that clever a piece of technology - most of what has been achieved is in the brokering of deals between ISPs and content owners and then a bit of clever gluing in the middle.

In the end Phorm will either be a great white elephant and just slip off the radar the way many technologies and companies have done or else it may actually be a spur to drive privacy legislation forward in line with our digital behaviour - how long it will take to do this however is the question as government is typically a long way behind technology in terms of law-making.

"Phorm over function?" by ajfisher is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 International License.

Source for citation: ajfisher.me/2008/04/22/phorm-over-function.