Phorm unveils consumer content service

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Phorm has added a new consumer content aggregator to its behavioural advertising system - but it's as yet unavailable in the UK, as no British ISPs have implemented Phorm's services.

Webwise Discover will use the same deep packet inspection Phorm uses to scan traffic at a network level to deliver advertising. But instead of ads, it will recommend content to surfers in a news-feed style widget embedded directly in partner sites.

For example, imagine a surfer visits a news site to look up the latest on the expenses scandal, but then goes to a different site to look up sports scores. The embedded widget will show the user what the second site has about the political scandal as well, as it's learned the user is interested in that topic.

Phorm compared the service to Apple's Genius or Amazon's book recommendation service, but for the web as a whole.

"We're not always so single-minded... in addition to searching, we also want serendipity," explained chief executive Kent Ertugrul. "We don't always know what we're looking for; we're not always looking for something, we just want to discover."

Discover will also create a homepage for users based on their preferences - sort of like a personalised, automated newsfeed.

Phorm noted that the system does not deliver content related to health or adult material, much like its advertising system.

Not yet available

If Discover sounds like a tool you'd like, you're out of luck for the time being. Because it will uses the same network scanning system as its Webwise advertising, Discover will only be available to customers of ISPs using Phorm's system of which there are none in the UK as yet.

BT has trialled the system three times twice allegedly secretly but it is yet to roll it out, while Phorm also has agreements with Virgin Media and Carphone Warehouse. None have implemented Phorm's system, and the firm could offer no timeline as to when that might happen.

Korean ISP KT is the only ISP actively trialling it and that trial has been going on for two weeks.

Phorm admitted the delays were frustrating, but Ertugrul said the slow rollout was because ISPs wanted to get it right, admitting that they were worried about negative publicity - some of which is related to privacy concerns.

Phorm took care to stress that the ad and the content system is entirely opt-in though some argue it remains opt-out - and users will only be signed up if they actively choose to use it. If a user opts out, none of their traffic will touch Phorm's systems.

"You don't need to leave your ISP if you don't like Webwise," stressed Marc Burgess, senior vice president of technology.

Ertugrul repeatedly stressed that Phorm's system offers choice and advanced notice, and doesn't store data or connect users to an IP address. "What if that were the law? We'd be the only company that complies," Ertugrul said, claiming: "We care about privacy maybe more than anyone else."

Critics such as the Open Rights Group and even Sir Tim Berners Lee disagree, while Phorm cited mass public approval from its own surveys.


From a business standpoint, Phorm said the service will help online content publishers think news or shopping sites keep customers on their sites, by recommending other areas of the site they might be interested in.

This could help increase the amount of time people spend on the site, Phorm said, adding that it had a meeting tonight with 50 top publishers regarding Discover.

At the moment, the widget does not include advertising, but as it is Flash based, it would be easy to replace content links with ads.

Publishers don't need to sign up to Phorm's advertising system or even embed the widget in their sites to have their feeds included in the system, the firm noted. Any "quality" publisher can ask to be included.