EC warns gov't over Phorm foot-dragging

The European Commission has said it will take formal action against the UK government unless answers are given to the Commission Phorm probe
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor

The European Commission has threatened to take formal action against the UK government, which it says has not provided information it needs in its probe into Phorm ad-serving technology.

The Commission warned the government on Thursday that its reaction to the investigation has been unsatisfactory so far. The Commission has sent three letters requesting information from the government, but has not received sufficient answers, Martin Selmayr, spokesman for the information society and media commissioner Viviane Reding, told ZDNet UK.

"A third letter was sent to the UK government at the end of January, and discussions with regard to Phorm are ongoing," Selmayr said. "The Commission may have to proceed to formal action if the UK authorities do not provide a satisfactory response to the Commission's concerns on the implementation of European law in the context of the Phorm case."

The investigation has asked the government a series of questions to confirm that the secret trials by BT of Phorm's behavioural targeted ad-serving technology were legal.

The trials, conducted in 2006 and 2007, tracked the browsing behaviour of BT customers without their consent. They led privacy campaigners, peers and groups such as the Foundation for Information Policy Research (FIPR) to assert that they contravened UK interception and data-protection laws.

Both the Information Commissioner's Office and the City of London police decided not to take any action over the trials.

The European Commission subsequently became concerned that BT and Phorm may have contravened EU laws and, in June 2008, it began an investigation by sending a letter to the UK government requesting that the government clarify its position.

The Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) responded to the Commission on behalf of the UK in September. However, it did not comment on the legality of the past trials, saying only that the government was confident that future Phorm ad-serving technology will conform to UK privacy and data-protection laws.

A BERR spokesperon told ZDNet UK on Thursday that it had received the Commission's third letter, and "will respond in due course".

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