Home Office asked Phorm for legal advice

News 28 Apr, 2009

Emails show the Home Office went to Phorm for advice on drawing up documents relating to the behavioural advertising firm.

The Home Office has allegedly asked Phorm for input on advice it released interpreting UK law about behavioural advertising services like those offered by the firm.

Phorm uses deep packet inspection to serve up relevant online advertising, scanning network traffic to see what people are doing online. Following a trial with BT, the European Union has started legal action against the UK for allowing Phorm to operate.

Emails released to the BBC under the Freedom of Information Act show Phorm asking the Home Office if it has any objection to “the marketing and operation of the Phorm product in the UK".

Further emails over the course of several months reportedly show the Home Office asking the firm for input into the advice document the government department was creating regarding such behavioural advertising systems, including Phorm itself, and how they fit into the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA).

According to the BBC, a Home Office official wrote to Phorm in January 2008: "I should be grateful if you would review the attached document, and let me know what you think."

In another email, the Home Office reportedly thanked Phorm for suggesting changes to the draft document. In the email, the government official wrote: "If we agree this, and this becomes our position do you think your clients and their prospective partners will be comforted?"

A Home Office spokesperson said in a statement to IT PRO: "Any suggestion of 'collusion' is totally unfounded. We have repeatedly said since these documents were released a year ago that the Government has not endorsed Phorm or its technology."

"We are committed to protecting the privacy of UK consumers and will ensure any new technology of this sort is applied in an appropriate and transparent manner, in full accordance with the law and with proper regulation from the appropriate authority," the statement added.

Jaw dropping

Liberal Democrat spokesperson on Home Affairs Baroness Sue Miller told the BBC that her “jaw dropped” when she saw the emails.

"The fact the Home Office asks the very company they are worried is actually falling outside the laws whether the draft interpretation of the law is correct is completely bizarre," she added.

She suggested to the BBC that the Home Office asked Phorm for help because "they didn't have the capacity to understand the technology they are dealing with".

She also alleged in the Guardian that the government’s failure to respond to the email accusations was because it is quite fond of the idea of deep packet inspection. “Perhaps this is because the Home Office would like to utilise similar technologies themselves,” she suggested.

Phoul smear campaign?

Phorm has yet respond to IT PRO's request for comment, but the firm’s chief executive Kent Ertugrul reportedly wrote to the Guardian denying any “collusion,” saying the accusations were untrue and misrepresented the way the legal system works.

He said he offered the Home Office "an informed opinion on ISP-based targeted advertising, but in the United Kingdom it is for the courts to decide what is or is not legal, not the Home Office".

Phorm today launched a new website StopPhoulPlay.com to correct “misconceptions” about the ad system.

“Over the last year Phorm and its staff have been the subject of a concerted campaign orchestrated by a small but dedicated band of detractors who appear determined to harm our company, irrespective of the facts, and the potential benefits to UK consumers and websites and advertisers,” the company said in a statement.

“Their energetic blogging and letter-writing campaigns, targeted at journalists, MPs, EU officials and regulators, distort the truth and misrepresent Phorm’s technology,” it said.