Berners-Lee Launches Privacy Offensive Against Web-Tracking

19 March 2008

LONDON: Worldwide web founder Tim Berners-Lee has threatened to quit his present ISP if it starts to track his online activities.

The object of the pioneer's ire is the Webwise OIX (Open Internet Exchange) system developed by Phorm Inc, a US-registered company with operational units in New York, London and Moscow.  

Webwise is a feature currently offered to advertisers by a handful of UK mass-market ISPs – BT, Virgin Media and TalkTalk – between them accounting for around 70% of the UK broadband market.

Phorm insists its system helps protect surfers from fraudulent websites, at the same time replacing generic online ads with those directly relevant to a viewer's interests.

But web users, including Berners-Lee, fear the underlying motif may be less benign.

In an interview with BBC News, Berners-Lee said that consumers need to be protected against systems which track activity on the internet.

"I want to know if I look up a whole lot of books about some form of cancer, that it's not going to get to my insurance company and I'm going to find my insurance premium is going to go up by 5% because they've figured out [why] I'm looking at those books."

Berners-Lee maintains that his data and web history belong to him alone – and not his ISP.

"[ISPs] supply connectivity with no strings attached ... my ISP doesn't control which websites I go to, it doesn't monitor which websites I go to.

"I'd say if [monitoring] was an option I wouldn't take it. If it wasn't an option, I would look for another ISP... I don't want to have to think about the secondary implications of going to a site."

Faced with criticism from such a revered source, Phorm chairman/ceo Kent Ertugrul was in emollient mode: "Phorm protects personal privacy and unlike the hundreds of other cookies on your PC, it comes with an on/off switch," he said.

He added that he looked forward to explaining to Berners-Lee how its system worked.

Meantime, the BBC advises surfers: "If you'd like to ensure that Webwise is permanently switched off, simply add to the Blocked Cookies settings in your browser."

Data sourced from multiple origins; additional content by WARC staff