A short history of Phorm

As Phorm launches a new consumer product, we track the system's rocky reception in the UK.

UPDATED: It's been a rocky ride for Phorm since it came to these shores, hawking its behavioural advertising system.

Phorm has promised its deep packet inspection system as everything from a way to fund faster broadband to the ad salvation of newspapers, and even as a more private way to track users than cookies. But some haven't been convinced, indeed citing it as a massive invasion of privacy.

Over the past year and a half, the always heated argument has included government bodies such as parliament, the PMO, the Home Office, police and the Information Commissioner's Office, as well as the EU.

On the private side, BT, Virgin Media, TalkTalk and Phorm itself have lined up against Amazon and Wikipedia, backed by lobbyists, privacy campaigners and many journalists, too.

All these groups have pondered the system called Webwise or Open Internet Exchange - which analyses network traffic to display relevant advertising to surfers. They've asked if it should be opt out or opt in - and what exactly that means - and whether secret trials by BT were legal. Some of these questions are as yet been answered.

But today, Phorm has launched a new tactic, directly targeting customers. To help them decide about Phorm, here's the history of the controversy since it hit the UK.

Trial by fire

Founded in 2002 as 121media, the firm originally distributed adware some would say spyware but changed its name in September 2007.

The following year, in February 2008, Phorm formally announced its move into the UK, though it would later be revealed it had been around earlier. At the time, Phorm had agreements with internet service providers BT, TalkTalk and Virgin Media.

The way the system works raised concerns for some, and the ICO was asked to step in he spent a month pondering his decision while the controversy continued to burn.

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In mid-March, it was revealed BT had run a secret trial of the system in 2007, spurring further privacy concerns.

The tech and the test sparked condemnation from Sir Tim Berners Lee the creator of the web and privacy thinktanks, and even spurred talk of legal action against the telecoms firm.

So it was no April Fool's Joke when news broke two weeks later on the first of the month that two trials had actually been held. The first was actually a secret two-week test in September of 2006, showing how early BT had been considering the technology.

A week later, the information commissioner Richard Thomas delivered his verdict, giving Phorm the green light, despite the secret trials and to the dismay of many privacy campaigners and protesters.

But the ICO piped back up a few days later, just to make it clear to Phorm that the service must be opt-in.

Full details of the secret tests eventually hit the web via Wikileaks in June, with documents showing BT tried Phorm's system out on 18,000 customers.

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