Watching while you surf

IS IT a worrying invasion of privacy for web surfers, or a lucrative new business model for online advertising? A new “behavioural” approach to targeting internet advertisements, being pioneered by companies such as Phorm, NebuAd and FrontPorch, is said to be both of these things. The idea is that special software, installed in the networks of internet-service providers (ISPs), intercepts webpage requests generated by their subscribers as they roam the net. The pages in question are delivered in the usual way, but are also scanned for particular keywords in order to build up a profile of each subscriber’s interests. These profiles can then be used to target advertisements more accurately.

Suppose a web user is idly surfing a travel blog one Sunday afternoon. He visits pages containing words such as “holiday”, “flight” and “hotel”. The behavioural-targeting software watching him inside the ISP’s network registers and categorises this apparent interest in travel. Later, when he logs on to a social-networking site to see what his friends are up to, advertisements for an airline or hotel chain pop up alongside the postings and photos. The depressing prospect of having to return to work the next day prompts him to click on an advertisement and book a minibreak for the next weekend.

To advertisers, this all sounds great. Behavioural-targeting firms are doing the rounds in Europe and America offering the prospect of working out what web surfers are thinking, perhaps even before they know themselves. If this really works, advertisers will be prepared to pay more to place ads, since they are more likely to be clicked on. That in turn means that websites will be able to charge more for their advertising slots. A small cut also goes to the ISP that originally gathered the profile information.

The companies involved suggest that internet users will welcome all this, since more accurate targeting

will turn internet advertising from an annoying distraction into a genuinely helpful service. “This idea that we don’t provide a service by doing this is as far from the truth as it’s possible to be,” says Kent Ertugrul, the boss of Phorm. “It creates a situation where there’s less rubbish bombarding you.”

But not everyone likes the idea. Opponents of behavioural targeting have kicked up the biggest fuss in Britain, which is where the technology seems to be making the most progress: the three biggest ISPs (BT, Virgin Media and TalkTalk), which together account for around 70% of the market, have all signed up to use Phorm’s technology. Since news of their plans emerged in February, over 13,000 people have signed an online petition opposing the system. Legal and networking experts have argued that it constitutes an unauthorised wiretap, and is therefore illegal. Richard Clayton, a computer-security expert at Cambridge University who has taken a close look at Phorm’s systems, did not like what he saw. Proponents of behavioural targeting, he concluded, “assume that if only people understood all the technical details they’d be happy. I have, and I’m still not happy at all.”

Phorm, which is now trying to get American ISPs to adopt its technology too, emphasises that consumers will be given the option to opt out of the system if they do not wish to use it.

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Watching while you surf