UK satirical magazine, Private Eye, this week brings the ludicrous Stop Phoul Play website to my attention. This is a corporate spin site devoted entirely to defending BT’s underhand and intrusive ‘Phorm’ online advertising technology against what it calls ‘privacy pirates’ who they claim are either being paid or pushed to damage BT.
Those listed as ‘piracy pirates’ include the excellent investigative IT journal, The Register, the Open Rights Group and the brilliant Foundation for Information Policy Research (FIPR), along with numerous bloggers and contributors to web forums. Now, it may be that some other corporations with rival technologies would like Phorm to fail, just as Microsoft probably enjoys it a great deal every time Google takes a PR hit (or vice-versa), but to suggest that everyone who make a criticism of Phorm is secretly part of some conspiracy against BT is frankly, either stupid paranoid.
And there are very good reasons for being critical of Phorm in the trojan-like manner of its operation and the way in which it has been tested without the consent of users. As Private Eye also reminds us, Phorm has landed the UK government in legal trouble with the EU. It hardly needs a conspiracy to make people justifiably annoyed.
This is one of the weirder exercises in PR I have seen, not least because its paranoia and promotion of conspiracies can only be damaging to BT. Thus it is no surprise to find that, according to the The Register, that it is the product of the fevered imagination of Patrick Robertson, whose previous clients include the lovely General Pinochet and former Tory MP and convicted liar, Jonathan Aitkin. So go take a look at Stop Phoul Play (while it still exists…) – it really is quite insane.
the primary limitation to any social networking tool being used for purposes that users don´t like is that the users can just walk
There´s been some discussion recently over surveillance on Facebook and in particular, the question of whether Facebook is planning to make the vast amounts of data it has for more targeted and intrusive marketing. Britain´s Daily Telegraph reported yesterday, based on an interview with Randi Zuckerberg, Facebook’s global markets director (and not coincidentally, sister of founder Mark Zuckerberg), that it was going to do this. It based its conclusion on the fact that Facebook was demonstrating new instant polling tools at the Davos World Economic Forum, Facebook´s development of so-called User Engagement Advertising, and the fact that unnamed ´marketing experts´ say that Facebook could be ´worth millions´to advertisers.
But, it turns out this is putting 2+2 together to make 5. Techcrunch was one of many tech blogs that questioned the Daily Telgraph´s story. They asked Facebook what was going on and were told that the WEF polls were nothing to do with Engagement Ads (which have been on Facebook for a while already) and that ´Facebook has, for many years, allowed the targeting of advertising in a non-personally identifiable way, based on profile attributes. Nothing has changed in our approach, and Facebook is committed, as always, to connecting users in a trusted environment.´
Now I don´t trust The Daily Telegraph, which has been declining in quality over the last few years and cutting experienced journalists in favour of using agency stories rewritten by trainees. But equally I don´t trust Facebook (or for that matter, any company run by rich kids whose only experience of the world is college, but that´s another story…). It is easy to imagine that they encourage such stories to test the waters. If the reaction was less worried, they might indeed decide to reveal themselves as a massive marketing scam, but the primary limitation to any social networking tool being used for purposes that users don´t like is that the users can just walk. Facebook appeared from nowhere to become a global player within a few years and it could disappear just as quickly when the next big thing arrives. The rise and fall of net-based companies is only going to get faster.
(Thanks to Sami Coll and Jason Nolan for bringing this to my attention)