EXCLUSIVE: TechRadar interviews Phorm CEO

10th Apr 2008 | 16:33

EXCLUSIVE: TechRadar interviews Phorm CEO

Is Phorm really quite innocuous after all?

TechRadar: Did Phorm expect the backlash against ‘targeted ads’ to be so widespread?

Kent Ertugrul, CEO, Phorm: Internet users have concerns about privacy – we understand that – which is why we’ve designed our system from the ground up with privacy in mind. Our technology is able to deliver targeted advertising without storing any data on individuals and participation will always be a choice – people can turn the service off or on at anytime.

TechRadar: What exactly do you think most people are so distrustful of? How does Phorm plan to change their minds?

Kent Ertugrul, Phorm: Quite rightly people are concerned about their privacy, particularly when they see stories about organisations losing or misplacing personal information. But it is not possible to reveal any personal information as our system simply does not store it. We do not store IP addresses and do not store browsing histories. In fact we don’t know who a user is or where they have been. 

Research shows that our technology will help overcome two of the biggest issues consumers have with the internet – irrelevant ads and security. Our system will deliver ads that are more relevant and provide more secure surfing with its anti-phishing service – all without storing any personal data.

That’s groundbreaking, because the other major online ad companies store your personal information for at least 13 months before they even anonymise it.

Our aim is to continue to educate people on our system in order to reassure the small minority who have expressed concerns that they can trust our technology to safeguard their privacy.

TechRadar: Would you agree that ‘profiling’ is akin to ‘spying’ regardless of whether it’s being done ‘anonymously’?

Kent Ertugrul, Phorm: No, we wouldn’t agree. We will not be profiling users – we are not attempting to build a picture about a particular user by storing data on them and their activities online. We don’t know who the users are – all we have is a random number.

We store no personal data as I said. Essentially, the system looks for the 10 most frequently occurring words on a webpage to match it to a keyword chosen by an advertiser such as camera.  If a match is made then an ad will be shown. We will not let advertisers use words that might relate to sensitive topics such as adult content, medical conditions and so on.

It’s important to remember in this process that the system is designed to ignore any data that might be personal such as names or long numbers which might be telephone numbers or postcodes. Nor is the system able to look at secure pages, like those used for online banking or webmail. We are only looking at webpages and so cannot read the content of people’s emails.

TechRadar: How can Phorm convince the average web-user that their data is being profiled ‘anonymously’?

Kent Ertugrul, Phorm: We built the system from the ground up with privacy in mind and have been very transparent about how it works. We’ve had Ernst & Young, privacy experts from a company called 80/20 Thinking and technology professor, Richard Clayton review the technology.

Their conclusions are that the privacy aspects of the technology work pretty much as we say they do. We’re happy to learn from these assessments and have other independent experts verify the system.

TechRadar: The FIPR recently came out and said that it believed that Phorm’s technology could be deemed illegal under RIPA. What has Phorm done to ensure its technology complies with the law?

Kent Ertugrul, Phorm: All the legal advice that we have had – and we’ve spoken to several lawyers, the Home Office, the Information Commissioner’s Office and others – is that the technology that we plan to deploy complies with all the relevant laws.

As far as our legal experts can see there is no interception issue with our system and user consent will always be is always obtained. FIPR asserts – under a very narrow interpretation of RIPA – that although we obtain user consent, without the explicit consent of each website, there is an unlawful interception under RIPA.

We would point to the many important and valuable consumer internet services such as Gmail (Google Mail) or spam filters where data from one side of the “communication” is analysed for the purpose of showing ads or blocking spam. Under FIPR’s interpretation such services would be deemed illegal.

TechRadar: Is there a case for saying that the once altruistic vision of the internet as a platform for information sharing and discussion (Web 2.0) is under threat, and that instead it is just sliding towards becoming just one more vehicle for aggressive product placement and targeted advertising (Phorm, Beacon etc)?

Kent Ertugrul, Phorm: Certainly not. The Phorm system is one of the most important developments on the Web in recent times. People are used to advertising paying for services that they enjoy such as TV or newspapers and magazines. On the internet advertising has enabled companies to develop innovative services and make them available for free.

Better targeted advertising will we believe actually reduce the amount of ads that people see in the long run as advertisers are prepared to pay more for this type of service allowing websites to earn more from less ads. Also, as more money is spent in online advertising it will be re-invested in more of the content and products that people want – for free.

TechRadar: Sir Tim-Berners Lee recently spoke out against the concept of data mining by ISPs, arguing that internet access should be supplied in the same way that a public utility like water or gas is – i.e. without any ‘strings attached’. Would you agree that an increase in targeted ads technology and data mining by ISPs flies in the face of this?

Kent Ertugrul, Phorm: It’s a nice idea. But the history of the internet is that people aren’t really prepared to pay a fixed subscription for content when it comes down to it, and that model has been replaced by free services paid for by advertising.

It is commonplace for internet companies to use data to be able to tailor services better for users just as retail companies use data to try target promotional deals at the people who would actually like them. Where we differ is that we store no personal data.

TechRadar: Do targeted ads really add to ones overall experience of the internet by making it a more personalised experience? Could you understand how, for some people at least, the fact that the adverts have been ‘personalised’ only serves to make them even more intrusive?

Kent Ertugrul, Phorm: Surprisingly perhaps, the opposite is true. Research shows that the issue most people have with online advertising comes from the fact that much of it is irrelevant. When advertising can be targeted (eg music ads in music magazines; car ads in car magazines), people find it more useful and as such less of an irritation. 

Rather than intrude and interrupt people’s surfing experience, the ads will be on subjects of real interest to people, which ultimately should serve to make people less frustrated with online advertising.

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