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"Listen up now, Virgin Media - Your customers don't want Phorm" [Updated]

# 27 March 2008, 16:54 by Cable Forum

Cable Forum, the largest online Virgin Media community, is now calling on Virgin Media to ditch its deal with Phorm. 95% of the customers polled in our recent survey have furiously insisted they don’t want Phorm. The storm with Phorm is refusing to go away, as more and more broadband customers learn about the serious ramifications this technology poses for privacy, human rights and civil liberties; not excluding the criminal issues surrounding this technology under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA).

By now many will have heard that BT, Talk Talk and Virgin Media have all signed up with Phorm; a company which gathers profiles of customer surfing habits by installing hardware on the Internet Service Provider’s (ISP) network between the customer and the Internet. This technology then intercepts all network traffic using the HTTP protocol in and out of the ISP network in order to scan web pages the customer is visiting to build a profile for the purpose of targeting advertising at them via OIX partner web sites.

This interception has been deemed as an unlawful interception by the Foundation for Information Policy Research (FIPR), a leading government advisory organisation on issues of national policy with regards to privacy. Under RIPA it has been pointed out by FIPR that informed consent must be sought from all parties in a communication before an interception is lawful; given that this would require Virgin Media to obtain consent from every single web site their customers visit (a task which would seem to be impossible in real terms) it would seem impossible for Virgin Media to not be in criminal breach of RIPA should they decide to deploy this technology. In fact many web sites already explicitly deny the interception and copying of their web sites for the purpose of profiling for marketing and advertising (examples include BBC and Amazon to name just two).

There is even the risk that by opting in to this technology (although at present it should be noted that customers will be opted in by default) customers who then initiate communication with a web site which explicitly denies consent to interception could be deemed as complicit and therefore criminally liable themselves under RIPA.

Phorm have vigorously defended and promoted their technology through the use of PR agencies, which in turn have registered on forums (including ours) and blogs to paste the PR campaign notices.

The ethical dilemmas raised on how to leverage more revenue from Internet technologies by imposing on the public’s statutory rights to privacy, human rights and criminal law; are substantial and such technologies should never be deployed under circumstances where those rights are devolved. Irrespective of whether the data is anonymised or not; explicit informed consent must be sought by law and can not be undermined simply to turn a profit.

No doubt those who have complained to their ISP were told of the protection Phorm’s “Webwise” claims to offer but these “features” are mostly redundant in the present day due to existing features in most operating systems, antivirus and web browser applications; which use the same industry standard blacklists which “Webwise” are trying to promote. To the less than casual observer, it would appear that “Webwise” was bolted on to the technology merely to “sweeten the deal” and distract customers from the sinister profiling aspects of the technology.

Users have reported that when they complained to Virgin Media, they were told of the importance of online protection and the benefits that Phorm’s “Webwise” could offer, some of Virgin Media’s staff allegedly did not even know about the revenue building aspects of this technology with regards to profiling and advertising.

It should also be noted that this issue has been heavily featured in the media and press over the last month, yet Virgin Media have remained silent in response to questions. Virgin Media customers feel this is unacceptable and it is a reiterating concern in the thread on our forums on this issue (a thread which has reached a staggering 2000 posts and 100 000 views). It should also concern you that our current poll on this issue was featured in the BBC “Click” television program on Saturday 15th March.

Even the official petition on the Prime Minister’s website is approaching 10 000 signatures, which takes it far beyond the limit required for a response from the Prime Minister himself. Furthermore, many of Virgin Media’s customers on our forum have written to MPs and MEPs to bring this matter to their urgent attention and requesting they initiate debate on this issue at the highest level.

The publicity has been so negative on this issue that yesterday the Guardian newspaper publicly announced they had dropped their partnership with Phorm’s OIX platform with the following explanation for their decision:

“Our decision was in no small part down to the conversations we had internally about how this product sits with the values of our company.”

As the busiest website of the UK press the loss of this partner is a serious blow for Phorm and their investors and should serve as a significant warning to Virgin Media as to how this technology could irrevocably damage their brand.

We feel that given the vast publicity this issue has created, the very adamant views of our users (your customers) and the lack of communications from Virgin Media to clarify matters and address your customer’s genuine concerns; that we need to make you aware of these issues and attempt to illicit an official response. This open letter will also be published in the “News” section of our website as will any response we receive.

  • Thanks to Alexander Hanff for contributing to this open letter and news piece.
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