A short history of Phorm

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

Despite the new information, and accusations that the secret trials broke RIPA, the ICO opted not to investigate further.

Taking it legal

But that didn't stop the EU started asking questions about whether the UK should have allowed the trials, sending a formal letter to the government in August 2008. The government's response a month later backed an opt-in Phorm, saying it was keeping an eye on the system, which kept the EU quiet - at the time, anyway.

The EU wasn't the only authority questioning the legality of Phorm. In September, the City of London Police paid a visit to BT, asking questions regarding the trial, but eventually decided it wasn't up to them.

Amidst this, BT launched the third trial, which asked 10,000 users if they wanted to take part.

In December of 2008, just a few months after the test, BT said it still expected to roll out the technology but not before banning talk about Webwise on its own forums.

That month also saw Phorm lose three board members and its chief operating officer but it managed to gain former Chancellor Norman Lamont and former Ofcom board member Kip Meek to its lineup. A few weeks later, firm lost two more executives, so the new year signalled a fresh start in a few ways for Phorm.

The boycotts

This spring, the Open Rights Group (ORG) kicked things off sort of with the publication of an open letter well, it would be open, wouldn't it? to a host of top tech firms, asking them to boycott the service.

It was targeted at Microsoft, Google/YouTube, Facebook, AOL/Bebo, Yahoo, Amazon and eBay. If the letter met its objective and those firms did boycott Phorm, it would effectively be out of business, as those sites make up a huge percentage of UK web traffic.

The Guardian kicked things off, pulling out of plans to use Phorm on its site in March of this year.

A few weeks later, and not specifically in response to the ORG letter, Amazon asked Phorm not to scan traffic from its site although Phorm has admitted it is trying to win back the giant online retailer.

Amazon's move was echoed days later by Wikipedia, which shortly thereafter also blocked Phorm, saying: "we consider the scanning and profiling of our visitors' behavior by a third party to be an infringement on their privacy."

Dragging the government in

In the midst of all this, the European Union took legal action against the UK over the BT trials of Phorm.

"Technologies like internet behavioural advertising can be useful for businesses and consumers but they must be used in a way that complies with EU rules. These rules are there to protect the privacy of citizens and must be rigorously enforced by all Member States," said EU telecoms commissioner Viviane Reding, in a statement.

Phorm noted that the issue is clearly between the UK and the EU, but stressed that its services are "fully compliant with UK legislation and relevant EU directives".

The UK has until the middle of this month to respond to the legal case.

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