Phorm serves up 'recommendation engine'

The behavioural ad-serving technology company has announced a content-serving product

Behavioural ad-serving company Phorm has announced a 'recommendation engine', which is designed to serve content based on user web-surfing behaviour.

Branded 'Webwise Discover', and aimed at web publishers and ISPs, the technology uses deep packet inspection (DPI) to build up a whitelist profile of the web-surfing habits of users, to serve them content based on their surfing history.

Technology experts including Tim Berners-Lee have questioned the privacy implications of organisations using DPI, but Phorm executives on Tuesday said there would be no privacy problems with the tool.

"The technology uses exactly the same platform as our targeted advertising technology, which we leverage with complete respect to people's privacy," Marc Burgess, Phorm's chief technology officer, told ZDNet UK.

Phorm chief executive Kent Ertugrul said publishers would give people a choice to opt in or out of Webwise Discover through an interstitial page. "There is a choice, people can choose whether to use it — there is no privacy issue," said Ertugrul.

The technology works through a black box sitting on the network, probably at ISP level, said Burgess. The ISP maintains a list of users who have opted in or out of the service. If the user is opted-in, their dynamic IP address goes onto a whitelist, and their traffic goes into the Webwise system.

The system composes a data digest that allows Phorm to match a list of keywords from web pages surfed with keywords on a particular site, to recommend further pages to the user.

Burgess said the Phorm system ignored certain types of traffic data in the whitelisting process. These data types include form-fields, numbers longer than three digits, and email addresses. The Phorm system also ignored sensitive data about web pages, including adult content, gambling and medical content.

"I think there's a complete misunderstanding about DPI in general," said Burgess. "We are looking at publicly available information from web pages, while the Phorm system allows me as a user to record interests automatically, so a website can show me content based on my interests, or an advertiser can serve me ads."

Phorm was established as a start-up seven years ago. Mike Moore, Phorm's commercial director, told ZDNet UK that no UK-based or US-based ISP or publisher had yet signed up to use Phorm technology. However, it is being used by one ISP in Korea under the Kook Smartweb brand.

Burgess said if the Webwise Discover content-serving technology proves popular with ISPs and users, this may act as a spur to the acceptance and uptake of Phorm's ad-serving technology.

"I think [Webwise Discover] is a big deal, and it will get us closer to deployment," said Burgess.

A number of organisations have overtly rejected Phorm Webwise ad-serving. Amazon declined to be tracked by Phorm in April, while last year Orange declined to deploy the ad-serving technology, saying customers might feel the service would compromise privacy.

BT conducted three trials of the ad-serving technology, but failed to secure customer consent for the first two trials, which led to allegations that the trials had contravened privacy laws. During the third trial, BT deleted almost all discussion from its user forums about the technology. The third customer trial concluded in December last year. Speaking to ZDNet UK on Wednesday, a BT spokesman said BT was still examining the data, six months after the trial.

"We've a huge network and a lot of customers," said the spokesperson. "We're still evaluating the results of the trial."

The spokesman added that BT had talked to Phorm about the Discover aspect of Webwise, and Discover was also in the process of being evaluated by BT.