April 14, 2009 | Jim Killock

EU Commission moves against UK Government and Phorm

The EU Commission has launched proceedings against the UK concerning Phorm, the intrusive behavioural advertising system. Campaigners, including Open Rights Group, have long argued Phorm is a gross invasion of internet users' privacy because it illegally intercepts confidential material. Now that high-profile website operators are lining up to oppose Phorm, these proceedings seem to be the fatal blow for the system.

Following our call for intervention, the EU has implicitly recognised the system involves unlawful interception because it does not obtain permission from both the user and the website owner. The UK authorities consistently deny this claim, although its unclear precisely which part of Government is responsible for enforcing related legislation. Fortunately, the EU has also expressed concerns with procedure, which should ensure similar technologies receive proper scrutiny in future.

In response to our recent open letter calling for leading websites to opt out of the system and protect both user privacy and their own brand equities, high-profile operators like LiveJournal, Netmums and mySociety are choosing to block phorm. This new condemnation of Phorm adds further pressure to the likes of Facebook, Google, Microsoft to also opt out.

There are big legal questions surrounding BT's use of Phorm, so we welcome the EU taking the government to task. It's a pity our own government haven't had more backbone and stood up for their voter's rights.

BT should respect everyone's privacy and drop their plans to snoop on the internet before they damage their own reputation further. Websites should protect their users and block Phorm now.

Comments (4)

  1. William:
    Apr 14, 2009 at 07:18 PM

    Spot on.

    It's painful to want Brussels to act against our own government, which should be that much closer to us and more responsive to our needs and wishes. But hey...

  2. A Very Worried Messenger:
    Jun 17, 2009 at 12:35 PM

    It seems that HMG have responded to the EU BUT have declined to properly notify any other interested parties!

  3. jaduncan:
    Apr 14, 2009 at 10:06 PM

    Hoorah for the EU. It is indeed embarrassing to have ourselves as the government that needs to be taught respect for liberty, but there we are. And I'm [or was, anyway] a Labour voter.

  4. Dr Paul A Daniels:
    Apr 15, 2009 at 04:51 PM

    Two points:

    1. It would be helpful if it were clearer how we all go about requesting Phorm not to scan our web sites in the same way that Amazon have done. A campaign could then be mounted to get thousands (if not millions) of small private and commercial website owners making similar such requests to Phorm. They'd be swamped with having to respond to each request and would have to put in place and maintain a robust system to exclude those web sites from their scanning software. With enough such sites their agenda would eventually become unworkable.

    2. By using someone's web browsing interests to a small commercial site to generate advertising that could divert that web user to other, supposedly related, sites the small commercial site could lose business to bigger sites that have joined Phorm's scheme. If, for example, a hypothetical Ms Bloggs visits a small, family-run, online soap shop then Phorm will target her with adverts by larger commercial soap companies. However, if she visits the web site of one of those large soap companies she is very unlikely to be targetted with adverts from the small family-run soap company. By allowing Phorm into bed with them the ISPs would be allowing online business to be skewed in favour of the big companies. Clearly, it's in the interests of small commercial organisations to request that their site not be scanned.

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