I wanted to share something with you today that I think you can probably help me out with. It’s about Phorm, the controversial behavioural ad company that’s partnered with British ISPs, including BT. We’ve written about them quite a bit in recent months.
Anyway, last week I got an email from one of BT’s PR guys. As you can expect, we’ve had some fairly robust discussions with them recently. This time he was pointing out some comments from the Guardian’s director of digital strategy, Simon Waldman, who said recently that industry needed “intelligent discussion” about the issue of behavioural ads and that “scaremongering” was no good.
BT’s point, I suppose, was to suggest that we were stirring up exactly that sort of trouble and being hypocritical to boot.
Fortunately, I have no problem with making trouble if it’s required. I don’t feel an overwhelming need to be neutral about things that are opposed to our civil rights. But I can try to be fair.
So, in that spirit of fairness, I responded by sending back an email laying out an argument showing why I think Phorm is problematic, and why BT should spend more time worrying about why it’s doing this than it does badgering its critics. I didn’t get a response back from them, but I’ve included the text below because, to my mind, it articulates the problem pretty clearly.
However: I want it to be better, because I think this is very important issue. And that’s where you can help. I’ve tried to explain why people have a problem with Phorm and what the controversy is really about. But have I got it right? Do you disagree? Is there a way we can make this argument clearer, or more accurate?
Read on for the relevant part of the email, and then leave suggestions, disputes or advice in the comments.
Here’s my problem with Phorm, in a nutshell, which might explain why I don’t think we’re going to stop writing about it any time soon:
If you monitored the phone calls I made – not necessarily what was said in them, but who they were made to and when – and then sold my number on to cold callers for a commission, I’d get pretty pissed off. And most people, I’m sure, would feel pretty similar.
Not just because cold calls are annoying – they are – but because it’s an abuse of your privileged position as service provider.
BT is not running a website that users choose to visit. It’s not running a service that users can switch away from easily.
You’re the gatekeeper. It’s your job to protect your customers, not use what you know about them for commercial advantage. And it helps to be straight with them too, rather than this feeling that you’re trying to get everything past them when they’re not looking.