Norman Lamont Emerges from Shadows to Join Board of Shadowy Internet Ad Spies Phorm
Norman Lamont, the former Tory chancellor so memorably characterised as a complete ignoramus on ITV’s Spitting Image, was yesterday announced as a non-executive director of the advertising technology firm Phorm, following a boardroom dispute that has seen three US-based directors ousted from the company.
Lamont, who is presumably enjoying the current financial crisis on account of it making Black Wednesday – which happened on his watch – look like a gentil tea party, has been drafted in by Phorm to help slime the wheels of their ongoing campaign to persuade the government that their company’s working practise doesn’t actually constitute a Big Brother-style snooping service, where users’ private web habits are recorded and monitored for the purposes of big business clients (which, funnily enough, is pretty much an exact description of what they do). In his company’s press announcement, Kent Ertugrul, Phorm’s CEO and a former seller of joyrides on Russian fighter jets, was fairly explicit about Lamont’s role:
“I welcome Lord Lamont, Kip [Meek, former executive at Ofcom], Stefan [Allesch-Taylor, co-founder of the Fairfax investment bank] and Stephen [Partridge-Hicks, MD of Gordian Knot, an investment management company] to the Board. They bring extensive experience on government, business, regulatory matters and financial markets.”
Phorm, which offers brands a targeted advertising system based on “deep packet inspection” of web browsers’ behavioural habits, needs all the help it can get, as it has come in for heavy criticism from privacy campaigners and most sane thinking citizens. One of these is Sir Tim Berners Lee, the man who founded the world wide web, who told the BBC in March, “I want to know if I look up a whole lot of books about some form of cancer that that’s not going to get to my insurance company and I’m going to find my insurance premium is going to go up by 5%.” Apart from the legal issue of privacy infringement, Berners Lee also pointed out that there’s also the question of Phorm’s collection of cookie data from web browsers, which is arguably theft; “If you want to use it for something, then you have to negotiate with me. I have to agree, I have to understand what I’m getting in return.”
In mid-September, the Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform concluded that Phorm’s activities did not contravene EU laws on data protection. However, the government advised that any service would have to be “opt-in” to satisfy British law – i.e. sites using Phorm services would need to present customers with an option to exercise choice about whether they’d like to be involved.
‘Opt-in’ is a slippery term though: would anyone apart from a hardened simpleton knowingly sign up to a service that exposes their private Internet data (i.e. every site you visit and all your transactions) to multinational corporations, for free? It’s not exactly an easy sell, so presumably the questions will be massaged to some degree, assuming they are immediately visible at all. And what constitutes ‘opting-in’? Subscribing to BT or Virgin services? So far, several media companies who initially expressed an interest in Phorm’s services have backed out – including the Guardian (who stated “… 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”), the FT, and the BBC – after their consumers expressed deep-seated anxieties, but surely not all other companies will be so scrupulous.
The government’s Information Commisioner Office (ICO) has claimed it will closely monitor Phorm’s activities to make sure they comply with data protection laws, and the Crown Prosecution Service is currently investigating whether secret BT tests of Phorm’s adware system on customers in 2006 and 2007 breached wiretapping laws.
Still, with Lamont’s help Phorm are hoping to achieve their stated ambition of turning their data pimping gaze on over 70% of Britain’s broadband users.