Phorm has been called many unpleasant things in its time, but now the controversial behavioural advertising-based company seems determined to add the word ‘useful' to the list.
In a rare public press conference, the company has announced that it is promoting a new system to its ISP customers called Webwise Discover, a tool that can be used to recommend deep site content to web visitors based on tracking previous Internet use.
The technology is free to Internet publishers, which can add the content-recommending ‘widgets' to their websites as they please, but the widgets only work through ISPs using Phorm's highly contentious Webwise tracking system. The technology is invisible to customers of non-Webwise ISPs.
To that end, the company said, Discover was a way of ‘explaining' and promoting the Webwise system to the public, which might otherwise have been put off by the claim that it is merely a way of spying on users' Internet use.
"ISP's are very enthusiastic about it," claimed Mark Burgess, Phorm's senior vice president of technology, though he was unwilling to name any that had committed to the system. So far only one part of the world has signed up publically to Discover, an ISP in Korea, he admitted. All of Phorm's ISP customers in the UK - BT, Virgin Media and Talk Talk - were looking at the system he said.
Certainly, all three have admitted to ‘trialling' Webwise in the past, but are believed to have hesitated in openly endorsing the system after being vilified for allegedly breaching customer privacy. The complaint appears justified on the basis that BT in particular started experimenting with Webwise in 2006 without informing users that their Internet use was being watched, but the die had been cast and troubled brewed.
Phorm's answer is that these issues were down to the ISPs in question - the company has no direct relationship with an ISP's customers. The system was also designed to allow users to opt-out should they wish to do so, Burgess pointed out.
"If you opt out at the network level, your traffic will never go into the system," he complained.
Discover, meanwhile, could offer something that bettered simple web searching for ordinary users, helping them reach content they might not otherwise discover. Publishers would benefit because they could generate hits from articles buried on their sites.
The software behind Discover was still in a beta form, and future refinements would include the ability for users to exclude content recommendations if they were no longer interested in them. In any case, interest topics would gradually "die off" if not acted upon, said Burgess.
Few companies have attracted as many contentious headlines as has Phorm in the last three years, which suggests that ISPs such as BT - not famed for its ability to read customer sentiment - underestimated the extent of people's growing anxiety about privacy.
The PR near-disaster reached its height earlier this year when the EU began legal action over the UK's complacent failure to protect UK Internet users' privacy. The charge has yet to be answered convincingly, though it now looks as if Phorm is at least in fighting mood. The debate-cum-battle - pro and con - is far from over yet.