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Phorm CEO clashes with Berners-Lee at Parliament

Ertugrul demands privacy panel opt-in

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An exasperated Kent Ertugrul took on Sir Tim Berners-Lee in a tense encounter at a discussion on internet privacy at the Houses of Parliament today.

The Phorm CEO was in the audience at a packed event sponsored by the Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Miller and organised by the privacy activist website NoDPI.org.

Fellow peers, MPs, campaigners and journalists gathered to hear from web inventor Berners-Lee, Cambridge University security academic Richard Clayton and other experts. Miller aimed to raise awareness of the technical, legal and ethical implications of interception and profiling by ISPs in collaboration with behavioural targeting companies such as Phorm.

Berners-Lee gave a passionate explanation of why he does not believe ISPs should on principle be allowed to intercept and profile their customers' internet usage. "It is very important that when click we click without a thought that a third party knows what we're clicking on," he said. "I have come here to defend the internet as a medium."

Ertugrul was annoyed not to have been asked to appear on the panel. Addressing the room following the panel's speeches, he sought to defend Phorm's technology by comparing its behavioural targeting to that done by advertising networks that work with website owners to track surfers as they browse the web.

Berners-Lee said Phorm's assurances that data will be anonymised and not stored did not allay his fears. "There will be a huge commercial pressure to release this data," he said. "I feel that it should just not be collected."

"To allow someone to snoop on your internet traffic is to allow them to put a television camera in your room, except it will tell them a whole lot more about you than the television camera".

BT completed a third trial of Phorm's system before Christmas. In a recent interview, Ertugrul said the full system will go live before the end of the year, although BT subsequently declined to confirm the statement.

Today, Ertugrul came prepared to make his own argument, and brandished a printout of none other than The Register's front page and a list of the cookies it drops on visitors. After encouraging your reporter to give the room a wave (we did) for our work highlighting Phorm and its implications (we think he was joking, but it's always hard to discern irony beneath an American accent), he said journalists would be out of a job without behavioural targeting.

Berners-Lee said: "Targeted advertising is an improvement, but there's so many ways of doing it without messing up [the internet]." Opposition to interception and profiling by ISPs represented "neo-Luddite retrenchment", Ertugrul said.

"That's not what we're talking about," Berners-Lee replied, saying that he wasn't arguing against behavioural targeting, but against interception and profiling by carriers, which he called "snooping". As he explained his counter point, Ertugrul interrupted him, only to be asked to stand down by Miller.

"There have been a number of things said that patently misrepresent what we do," Ertugrul protested. Increasingly worked up, he was eventually hushed by his technology chief Mark Burgess, who whispered, "in a minute, Kent," to his boss.

It was a tense moment in an otherwise good-spirited session, attended among others by Tory civil liberties campaigner David Davis MP and senior Labour MP Alun Michael. Miller said BT declined her invitation to attend.

Despite Ertugrul's ire at being overlooked for the panel, Phorm attended the event en masse. As well as Ertugrul and Burgess, public affairs director Radha Burgess and PR man Alex Laity were on hand. They also brought Peter Bazalgette, the reality TV executive turned media pundit. In November he wrote a defence of Phorm and similar technologies in the magazine Prospect, which purportedly carries influence among the political class.

The failure of UK authorities to investigate BT's and Phorm's secret trials in 2006 and 2007 was discussed as evidence the government did not appreciate the significance of Phorm-like technologies. Clayton said that although he didn't expect BT executive to face criminal charges for coopting tens of thousands of customers' data in Phorm's systems, "we have got to make examples of them [to stop a repeat]".

There was agreement on the panel that the failure to investigate was not the result of poor privacy laws, but in the weakness of bodies meant to enforce them. The Information Commissioner's Office shoulder-shrugging response to the secret trials and a lack of technogical expertise among police were both highlighted.

Several delegates El Reg spoke to noted the contrast between the UK parliament's belated and ad hoc response to the issues and the series of formal hearing quickly convened last summer by legislators in Washington.

Happily for Ertugrul, Miller said she hoped further sessions could be organised with speakers from industry. ®

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