Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/04/08/phorm_town_hall/

Phorm moves beyond privacy - except when slating rivals

Emotive statements blow City Town Hall wide open

By Joe Fay

Posted in Broadband, 8th April 2009 13:20 GMT

Phorm wheeled out its new chairman last night - the former Tory chancellor Norman Lamont - to steward the second town hall meeting since it leapt out of stealth mode and straight into a privacy firestorm just over a year ago.

And what a year it's been. After relentless pillorying in the press, the one-time pariah's reputation has been reassessed, and he can justifiably point at others whose records deserve far more criticism than his. In short, it's time to move on.

That is, of course, Norman Lamont we're talking about. Meanwhile, Phorm boss Kent Ertugrul must be hoping it won't take him 17 years to pull off the same stunt as his non-exec chairman.

Appropriately, Ertugrul kicked off the town hall meeting at the London School of Economics with a crash course in media studies. Phorm's opponents, he claimed, had developed a predictable pattern. Its detractors started with an "emotive statement", eg Phorm is illegal. Haters will then "create a story and cover it yourself, creating a lot of "noise". When the real facts (should that be phacts?) emerge, and the story is disproved, the haters simply move on to another "emotive statement", Ertugrul claimed, and the cycle begins again.

All the time, these emotive story tellers are ignoring Phorm's work in setting the "gold standard" in privacy for the internet advertising industry, said Etrugrul, declaring "the legitimacy and gold standard privacy is pretty much beyond doubt.”

“On the privacy issue,” he added, “we'll continue to listen but it's a long time since anything factual has been brought up."

In fact, Ertugrul and the other Phorm execs were adamant that it was "time to move on" on the privacy issue.

Except that no-one really wanted to. Not the audience at the Q&A, and certainly not Phorm, when it came to slamming a certain "large search engine" and other large vested internet interests for their record on privacy. These organisations are keeping the majority of web users in the dark about their storing of users' surfing habits, said Ertrugul, "so they don't even know they have a choice.”

Asked by a Guardian hack about recent suggestions from Facebook execs that users make their misgivings about Phorm known to their ISPs, Ertugrul said “I don't even want to go there.”

Ertugrul then bravely went there, saying that if users really object to Phorm, the company and its technology will simply fade away, “but I'm struck by the fact there's some people who seem to be quite intent on not understanding how our system works.”

Tech boss Marc Burgess reassured the audience that all the upcoming UK deployments will have “network level opt-out”, meaning dissenting users details will not go anywhere near Phorm's black boxes.

Not that this will necessarily be the case worldwide. Ertugrul said the firm was speaking to many ISPs, and it would be down to each of them to decide themselves what would be best for their users. They should have plenty of time to decide. Phorm last night appeared no closer to naming a date for when its technology will be rolled out in anger.

Presumably Facebook, a “large search engine” and others have simply succumbed to the emotive statements about Phorm that sections of the news media and the internet at large have been so busy rehashing over the last year, while ignoring the would-be ad broker's gold standard privacy stance.

Yet, Ertugrul is a giving kind of guy. In fact, he told the audience last night, he's going to help the quality and regional press keep the money rolling in even as the old models of publishing die out. Ertugrul told his listeners that nearly half the internet advertising spend in the UK goes to one company. He didn't say who, but he also mentioned that there is a certain “large search engine” which rides on the back of the news industry without giving much back in return. Good god, it's almost like a monopoly or something.

When Phorm rolls out, Ertugrul said, traditional publishers will have a sure fire way to exploit their quality content online. Meanwhile, he promised other content providers will get their slice of the advertising pie, whereas before they were just doing it for love. This, said Ertugrul, would mean that bloggers, social policy wonks, and presumably raving lunatics privacy activists would all get a slice.

“Most of the internet today is dark from a revenue standpoint,” said Ertugrul.

It's as if Phorm has gone and democratized the web, ensuring that everyone makes some money, and securing the flow of free content.

Except that there's only so much that advertisers can spend on net advertising. If the pot goes ever broader, perhaps the likes of the New York Times and Guardian might not be able to invest in quality journalism. We'd be stuck with, presumably, a lot of bloggers posting emotive statements.

So a year on, and what has Phorm achieved. It hasn't changed the world, and to be honest, it probably hasn't changed many minds. Except perhaps one. On the way out of the LSE, we overheard Lamont commenting on what a funny old world it was, and how “I never thought I'd be pleading to save the media.” ®