UK government gives muted response to anti-phorm ISP petitio

The UK Government has finally, after well over two months of waiting, issued its official response to a petition that requested the Prime Minister (Gordon Brown) to "stop ISP's from breaching customers privacy via advertising technologies". Sadly the reply is unsurprisingly weak and palms most of the responsibility off onto old guidance from the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO).

The Original Petition

We petition the Prime Minister to investigate the Phorm technology and if found to breach UK or European privacy laws then ban all ISP's from adopting it's use. Additionally the privacy laws should be reviewed to cover any future technologies such as Phorm

The UK's three largest ISP's, Virgin Media, BT and TalkTalk are all in talks with a view to introducing the Phorm technology. This would result in the browsing habits of the majority of the UK population being sold to a third party for advertising purposes. The opt out system for this technology is vague and unproven, even when opting out your every move on the Internet might be recorded. Surely this must be a breach of privacy laws, if not then the privacy laws need to be changed to cover such invasive technology.

The petition itself managed to gain 21,403 signatures and closed on 4th March 2009, though the government's official response (below) leaves much to be desired. Just to recap, Phorm controversially works with UK broadband ISPs (e.g. BT WebWise) to monitor what websites you visit for use in targeted advertising campaigns.

Read the Government's response

Thank you for the e-petition on internet advertising technologies and customer privacy.

As your petition states, some Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have been looking at the use of Phorm's Webwise and Open Internet Exchange (OIX) products. However, the only use of the technology so far has been the trials conducted by BT.

Advertisers and ISPs need to ensure that they comply with all relevant data protection and privacy laws. It is also important that consumers' privacy is protected and that they are given sufficient information and opportunity to make a clear and informed decision whether to participate in services such as Phorm.

The Government is committed to ensuring that people's privacy is fully protected. Legislation is in place for this purpose and is enforced by the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO). ICO looked at this technology, to ensure that any use of Phorm or similar technology is compatible with the relevant privacy legislation. ICO has published its view on Phorm on its website:

ICO is an independent body, and it would not be appropriate for the Government to second guess its decisions. However, ICO has been clear that it will be monitoring closely all progress on this issue, and in particular any future use of Phorm's technology. They will ensure that any such future use is done in a lawful, appropriate and transparent manner, and that consumers' rights are fully protected.

Still, the outcome is surely not going to come as a shock to anybody because the government has long shown itself to be somewhat in support of Phorm's controversial technology (recent example), much to the EU's apparent frustration. Still, at least that gives the media plenty of extra newspaper column inches to fill up with more corrupt expenses claims instead.. oh yay.

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