Web’s creator attacks monitoring firm Phorm

March 11, 2009

Web's creator attacks monitoring firm PhormSir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, has slammed plans by British Internet firms to use the controversial Phorm monitoring system. He told politicians that the system is like having a “TV camera in one’s room”.

Phorm uses a system of monitoring named ‘deep packet inspection’ to produce targeted adverts. Unlike most online monitoring, this looks at every aspect of data that passes over the Internet rather than just the packet header (which simply gives details about the data). To use a very simplified analogy, it’s like the difference between reading the sender name and subject line of an email, and reading the body of the message itself.

Three British Internet providers have reportedly made agreements with Phorm to use its technology to produce adverts suitable to individual users, though only British Telecom is known to have tried the system in practice.

There have already been serious questions about whether it’s legal to use such technology in the United Kingdom without getting express consent from Internet users beforehand, though a police investigation concluded BT hadn’t broken any laws. The British government says it believes the technology does not breach European regulations on data protection.

Berners-Lee told a meeting at the British parliament today that such ‘snooping’ was a serious issue: “What is at stake is the integrity of the Internet as a communications medium.”

Phorm’s CEO Kent Ertugrul, who was not formally invited to speak, attended the meeting. According to The Register, he and Berners-Lee had a heated exchange of views, with Ertrugal accusing opponents of displaying “neo-Luddite retrenchment”.

The gist of the argument is that firms such as Phorm believe their service helps everyone by improving the relevance of advertising to individual users, while critics do not trust the safeguards put in place to stop the data collected by the service being misused.

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