While covering the latest developments in the Phorm story, I could not help but feel a little bit sorry for them. Here was a company that felt it had a killer web advertising service that would be adopted by every ISP, and premium advertisers would flock to the service. Phorm would make a handsome profit. But from the very start there was strong opposition to the service. Hard questions were asked by some in the press about what it was doing. There was unrest from advocates and researchers about the technology. Facebook groups were created against the service. Yet they bravely continued despite all opposition. “Nobody likes us and we don’t care.” However, things did not turn out for the best for them. Websites and service providers started opting out of Phorm, including Wikipedia, Amazon, Orange, and The Guardian. Then the European Commission commented that it would be looking into Phorm. Things were not looking good for the poor company. I did feel a bit sorry for them.
I am happy to report that Phorm has managed the rare feat of evaporating even the last drop of pity that I may once have felt for them. They have created a vicious and yet unintentionally funny website called, wait for it, Stop Phoul Play , where they even have a form that invites users to stay inphormed (even more gratuitous ef replacement, the phools!). The website has labelled everyone involved in the campaign against the service as ‘privacy pirates’. Yes, we are labelled pirates because we oppose a service. I can imagine the PR meeting where this was discussed:
“We need a nickname to describe all of Phorm opponents.”
“Hmmm… what about ‘misguided miscreants’?”
“Too wordy, we need something that will make the public want to dislike them immediately”.
“Something like ‘privacy molesters’?
“I like it, but it’s a bit too strong. You are thinking along the right lines though.”
“Pirates are in the news, nobody like pirates…”
“Excellent! Privacy pirates it is.”
Needless to say, there is absolutely no rational connection between being opposed to a web service, and blood-thirsty organised criminal endeavours in the high seas. The term insults not only campaigners, but the public’s intelligence. What I found more unnerving about the site is that it sends some confused signals about how Phorm is the subject of a vast conspiracy of shady characters, while at the same time it tries to label some of its more established rivals as “small acronyms”, attempting to dismiss their power and influence. You cannot have it both ways.
Phorm reserves some of its most misguided vitriol against the Open Rights Group and the Foundation for Information Policy Research. First, it labels ORG and FIPR as “The Legal Experts”. Yes, in quotation marks, implying that they are no such thing. As a member of ORG-Legal I beg to disagree; you can say many things about us, but legal experts we certainly are. It then goes on to make a bizarre attack on both organisations:
“In the financial year ended 31 October 2007, ORG received modest funding from the Foundation for Information Policy Research. FIPR is another acronym involved in the smear campaign against Phorm. FIPR is an organisation that purports to enjoy broad support among IT professionals. In fact, it apes the guerrilla tactics of the other miniscule organisations with whom it collaborates. As the table below shows, it appears to be merely another branch of the hydra-headed gang of online privacy pirates whose purpose is to damage Phorm.”
A “hydra-headed gang of online privacy pirates”? Who writes this stuff? That is the funniest thing I have read since the last good Pratchett book.
Phorm’s real problem is not this strange conspiracy. While I have no idea if their claims against some of the most vocal critics are true, they have not really defended their technology that well. Phorm could be right that there are people who have crossed lines in attacking them, and yet that would not vindicate their own service, nor erase its problems. Many of us are opposed to Phorm because it is an unnecessary technology that intercepts communications between the user and the ISP. They may dress up this fact and claim that the interception is anonymous, but they cannot dismiss that many users find such actions needless, disturbing, and excessive. Despite its blanket dismissal of all of its critics, there are legitimate concerns voiced by all sort of people who are not part of a vile conspiracy that wants to see a valid business model fail out of spite. Phorm, we truly find that your claims do not add up, we do not believe your technical assurances of perfect anonymity, and we do not think that we need your service. It’s as easy as that, and there is no need to conjure up conspiracy theories from thin air.
While I understand that things must be a bit desperate at Phorm headquarters, surely such a vindictive and wrong-headed response will only make things worse.