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February 29, 2008

Phormal ware

In the last ten days or so a stormlet has broken out about the announcement that BT, Carphone Warehouse, and TalkTalk, who jointly cover about 70 percent of British Internet subscribers, have signed up for a new advertising service. The supplier, Phorm (previously, 121Media), has developed Open Internet Exchange (OIX), a platform to serve up "relevant" ads to ISPs' customers. Ad agencies and Web sites also sign up to the service which, according to Phorm's FAQ, can serve up ads to any Web site "in the regular places the website shows ads". Partners include most British national newspapers, iVillage, and MGM OMD.

A brief chat with BT revealed that the service, known to consumers as Webwise, will apply only to BT's retail customers, not its wholesale division. Consumers will be able to opt out, and BT is planning an educational exercise to explain the service.

Obviously all concerned hope Webwise will be acceptable to consumers, but to make it a little more palatable, not signing out of it gets you warnings if you land on suspected phishing sites. I don't think improved security should, ethically, be tied to a person's ad-friendliness, but this is the world we live in.

"We've done extensive research with our customer base," says BT's spokesman, "and it's very clear that when customers know what is happening they're overwhelmingly in favor of it, particularly in terms of added security."

But the Net folk are suspicious folk, and words like "spyware" and "adware" are circling, partly because Phorm's precursor, 121Media, was blocked by Symantec and F-Secure as spyware. Plus, The Register discovered that BT had been sharing data with Phorm as long ag as last summer, and, apparently, lying about it.

Phorm's PR did not reply to a request for an interview, but a spokeswoman contacted briefly last week defended the company. "We are absolutely not and in no way an adware product at all."

The overlooked aspect: Phorm called in Privacy International's new commercial arm, 80/20, to examine its system.

PI's executive director, Simon Davies, one of the examiners, says, "Phorm has done its very best to eliminate and minimise the use of personal information and build privacy into the core of the technology. In that sense, it's a privacy-friendly technology, but that does not get us away from the intrusion aspect." In general, the principle is that ads shouldn't be served on an opt-out basis; users should have to opt in to receive them.

Tailoring advertising to the clickstream of user interests is of course endemic online now; it's how Google does AdSense, and it's why that company bought DoubleClick, which more or less invented the business of building up user profiles to create personalized ads. Phorm's service, however, does not build user profiles.

A cookie with a unique ID is stored on the user's system - but does not associate that ID with an individual or the computer it's stored on. Say you're browsing car sites like Ford and Nissan. The ISP does not give Phorm personally identifiable information like IP addresses, but does share the information that the computer this cookie is on is looking at car sites right now. OIX serves up car ads. The service ignores niche sites, secure sites (HTTPS), and low-traffic sites. Firewalling between Phorm and the ISP means that the ISP doesn't know and can't deduce the information that the OIX platform knows about what ads are being served. Nothing is stored to create a profile. Phorm instead offers advertisers instead is the knowledge that they are serving ads that reflect users' interests in real time.

The difference to Davies is that Google, which came last in Privacy International's privacy rankings, stores search histories and browsing data and ties them to personal identifiers, primarily login IDs and IP addresses. (Next month, the Article 29 Group will report its opinion as to whether IP addresses are personal information, so we will know better then which way the cookie crumbles.)

"The potential to develop a profile covertly is extremely limited, if not eliminated," says Davies.

Phorm itself says, "We really think what our stuff does dispells the myth that in order to provide relevance you have to store data."

I hate advertising as much as the next six people. But most ISPs are operating on razor-thin margins if they make money at all, and they're looking at continuously increasing demand for bandwidth. That demand can only get worse as consumers flock to the iPlayer and other sources of streaming video. The pressure on pricing is steadily downward with people like TalkTalk and O2 offering free or extremely cheap broadband as an add-on to mobile phone accounts. Meanwhile, the advertising revenues go to everyone but them. Is it surprising that they'd leap at this? Analysts estimate that BT will pick up £85 million in the first year. Nice if you can get it.

We all want low-cost broadband and free content. None of us wants ads. How exactly do we propose all this free stuff is going to be paid for?

As for Phorm, it's going to take a lot to make some users trust them. I'd say, though, that the jury is still out. Sometimes people do learn from past mistakes.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

February 22, 2008


There is a certain kind of mentality that is actually proud of not understanding computers, as if there were something honorable about saying grandly, "Oh, I leave all that to my children."

Outside of computing, only television gets so many people boasting of their ignorance. Do we boast how few books we read? Do we trumpet our ignorance of other practical skills, like balancing a cheque book, cooking, or choosing wine? When someone suggests we get dressed in the morning do we say proudly, "I don't know how"?

There is so much insanity coming out of the British government on the Internet/computing front at the moment that the only possible conclusion is that the government is made up entirely of people who are engaged in a sort of reverse pissing contest with each other: I can compute less than you can, and see? here's a really dumb proposal to prove it.

How else can we explain yesterday's news that the government is determined to proceed with Contactpoint even though the report it commissioned and paid for from Deloitte warns that the risk of storing the personal details of every British child under 16 can only be managed, not eliminated? Lately, it seems that there's news of a major data breach every week. But the present government is like a batch of 20-year-olds who think that mortality can't happen to them.

Or today's news that the Department of Culture, Media, and Sport has launched its proposals for "Creative Britain", and among them is a very clear diktat to ISPs: deal with file-sharing voluntarily or we'll make you do it. By April 2009. This bit of extortion nestles in the middle of a bunch of other stuff about educating schoolchildren about the value of intellectual property. Dare we say: if there were one thing you could possibly do to ensure that kids sneer at IP, it would be to teach them about it in school.

The proposals are vague in the extreme about what kind of regulation the DCMS would accept as sufficient. Despite the leaks of last week, culture secretary Andy Burnham has told the Financial Times that the "three strikes" idea was never in the paper. As outlined by Open Rights Group executive director Becky Hogge in New Statesman, "three strikes" would mean that all Internet users would be tracked by IP address and warned by letter if they are caught uploading copyrighted content. After three letters, they would be disconnected. As Hogge says (disclosure: I am on the ORG advisory board), the punishment will fall equally on innocent bystanders who happen to share the same house. Worse, it turns ISPs into a squad of private police for a historically rapacious industry.

Charles Arthur, writing in yesterday's Guardian, presented the British Phonographic Institute's case about why the three strikes idea isn't necessarily completely awful: it's better than being sued. (These are our choices?) ISPs, of course, hate the idea: this is an industry with nanoscale margins. Who bears the liability if someone is disconnected and starts to complain? What if they sue?

We'll say it again: if the entertainment industries really want to stop file-sharing, they need to negotiate changed business models and create a legitimate market. Many people would be willing to pay a reasonable price to download TV shows and music if they could get in return reliable, fast, advertising-free, DRM-free downloads at or soon after the time of the initial release. The longer the present situation continues the more entrenched the habit of unauthorized file-sharing will become and the harder it will be to divert people to the legitimate market that eventually must be established.

But the key damning bit in Arthur's article (disclosure: he is my editor at the paper) is the BPI's admission that they cannot actually say that ending file-sharing would make sales grow. The best the BPI spokesman could come up with is, "It would send out the message that copyright is to be respected, that creative industries are to be respected and paid for."

Actually, what would really do that is a more balanced copyright law. Right now, the law is so far from what most people expect it to be - or rationally think it should be - that it is breeding contempt for itself. And it is about to get worse: term extension is back on the agenda. The 2006 Gowers Review recommended against it, but on February 14, Irish EU Commissioner Charlie McCreevy (previously: champion of software patents) has announced his intention to propose extending performers' copyright in sound recordings from the current 50-year term to 95 years. The plan seems to go something like this: whisk it past the Commission in the next two months. Then the French presidency starts and whee! new law! The UK can then say its hands are tied.

That change makes no difference to British ISPs, however, who are now under the gun to come up with some scheme to keep the government from clomping all over them. Or to the kids who are going to be tracked from cradle to alcopop by unique identity number. Maybe the first target of the government computing literacy programs should be...the government.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

February 15, 2008


If you log onto ebay.com (not .co.uk or eBay's other international sites) next week you may find gaping holes: a number of sellers have pledged to boycott from February 18 to 25 to protest changes eBay is making in listing fees, commissions, some payment requirements, and, probably most contentious, the feedback system. The short version: sellers will no longer be able to leave feedback for buyers, and eBay will require sellers who are new or have low feedback ratings to use Paypal as a payment option and also give their listings less exposure in searches. There will also be penalties for overcharging for postage and handling (a sneaky way of making up for low prices).

Whether these changes are good changes or bad, eBay's feedback system has been broken for a long time, as Jim Griffith comments. The essence of a reputation-based system is holding buyers and sellers accountable for bad behavior. But no one dares leave negative feedback any more for fear of retaliation.

Sellers have reacted angrily to the announced change and some are threatening a strike in which they pull all their items from sale from February 18 to 25. Logically, however, what good do buyer ratings do? The system is inherently unbalanced: buyers choose their sellers but sellers can't discriminate among buyers.

Sellers can't, for example, use the buyer ratings to ring-fence sales. If a buyer fails to pay or rips off a seller by instigating a chargeback after the item has been delivered, the seller's only recourse is through eBay's trust and fraud department. eBay's argument that the change should result in a more accurate reputation system is probably justified.

If it doesn't feel fairly balanced, that's emotion, not logic, based on nostalgia for the early days, when eBay was a democratic site where all users were amateurs who both bought and sold. eBay now is full of businesses and professional sellers, and what the feedback changes make explicit is that over time eBay has become a class system.

Professional sellers (everyone from substantial businesses who also run their own ecommerce sites and probably list on Amazon Marketplace and Google Checkout as well) are in a different league from the casual seller who maybe wants to get rid of that old DVD player and doesn't see why it shouldn't be for a bit of cash. If online discussion forums are 90 percent lurkers and 10 percent posters, it wouldn't be surprising if eBay's user community was 90 percent buyers and 10 percent sellers. I'm a good example: I've sold two items on eBay, but bought dozens, some of them repeat business with the same crafts people and some one-off purchases. For casual sellers, I do look at sellers' feedback - largely to eliminate obvious frauds. (I had to stop buying DVDs on eBay at all - the site is overrun with Asian counterfeits). For the professional sellers, however, the more important reputation information lies in recommendations outside of eBay from people interested in the same sorts of things I am.

There are people the changes will hurt, but the big sellers probably won't be among them.; do enough volume successfully and a few negative reviews won't hurt you that much. Individuals won't be able to benefit from an established reputation as a reliable buyer when they sell items. Small sellers will have no way of defending themselves publicly if an unreasonable buyer chooses to trash them. (If the buyer doesn't pay at all, of course, sellers can still work to get the user barred from the service.)

Do eBay sellers have, as some are insisting, a real choice? Some, yes, even though the received wisdom for a long time has been in online auctions size of the user base is everything. Some craftspeople have been migrating to Etsy, which is becoming an interesting place to browse. The big sellers generally already sell through multiple channels. People selling off used DVDs, books, and other media would probably do better listing on Amazon Marketplace, where their items will show up, presumably favorably priced, in the same listing with new copies. It's the flea market crowd - the people selling off old tires, strange collectibles, and odd bits of clothing - for whom the size of eBay's audience is indispensable. That is very much eBay's roots, but who wants to move back in with their parents?

Online communities - including commercial ones, like eBay - all tend to exhibit the same social characteristics. One such is the rule that users hate change. Especially, they hate specific changes that threaten to remove one or more freedoms they're used to. eBay's new CEO is right to say it would be more surprising if people didn't protest, given the community's passionate nature. But plenty of online communities have had userbases just as passionate - and did not survive their own arrogance once technology changes created other options. In this battle, eBay's true opponent is Google.

It is Google, now, whose product search puts eBay listings alongside many others, and where people are increasingly likely to start looking for unfamiliar items. And it will be Google that wins if sellers leave eBay en masse, because that's how we will find them in their new homes.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

February 8, 2008

If you have ID cards, drink alcohol

One of the key identifiers of an addiction is that indulgence in it persists long after all the reasons for doing it have turned from good to bad.

A sobered-up Scottish alcoholic once told me the following examplar of alcoholic thinking. A professor is lecturing to a class of alcoholics on the evils of drinking. To make his point, he takes two glasses, one filled with water, the other with alcohol. Into each glass he drops a live worm. The worm in the glass of water lives; the worm in the glass of alcohol dies.

"What," the professor asks, "can we learn from this?"

One of the alcoholics raises his hand. "If you have worms, drink alcohol."

In alcoholic thinking, of course, there is no circumstance in which the answer isn't "Drink alcohol."

So, too, with the ID card. The purpose as mooted between 2001 and 2004 was preventing benefit fraud and making life more convenient for UK citizens and residents. The plan promised perfect identification via the combination of a clean database (the National Identity Register) and biometrics (fingerprints and iris scans). The consultation document made a show of suggesting the cheaper alternative of a paper card with minimal data collection, but it was clear what they really wanted: the big, fancy stuff that would make them the envy of other major governments.

Opponents warned of the UK's poor track record with large IT projects, the privacy-invasiveness, and the huge amount such a system was likely to cost. Government estimates, now at £5.4 billion, have been slowly rising to meet Privacy International's original estimate of £6 billion.

By 2006, when the necessary legislation was passed, the government had abandoned the friendly "entitlement card" language and was calling it a national ID card. By then, also, the case had changed: less entitlement, more crime prevention.

It's 2008, and the wheels seem to be coming off. The government's original contention that the population really wanted ID cards has been shredded by the leaked documents of the last few weeks. In these, it's clear that the government knows the only way it will get people to adopt the ID card is by coercion, starting with the groups who are least able to protest by refusal: young people and foreigners.

Almost every element deemed important in the original proposal is now gone - the clean database populated through interviews and careful documentation (now the repurposed Department of Work and Pensions database); the iris scans (discarded); probably the fingerprints (too expensive except for foreigners). The one element that for sure remains is the one the government denied from the start: compulsion.

The government was always open about its intention for non-registration to become increasingly uncomfortable and eventually to make registration compulsory. But if the card is coming at least two years later than they intended, compulsion is ahead of schedule.

Of course, we've always maintained that the key to the project is the database, not the card. It's an indicator of just how much of a mess the project is that the Register, the heart of the system, was first to be scaled back because of its infeasibility. (I mean, really, guys. Interview and background-check the documentation of every one of 60 million people in any sort of reasonable time scale?)

The project is even fading in popularity with the very vendors who want to make money supplying the IT for it. How can you specify a system whose stated goals keep changing?

The late humorist and playwright Jean Kerr (probably now best known for her collection of pieces about raising five boys with her drama critic husband in a wacky old house in Larchmont, NY, Please Don't Eat the Daisies) once wrote a piece about the trials and tribulations of slogging through the out-of-town openings of one of her plays. In these pre-Broadway trial runs, lines get cut and revised; performances get reshaped and tightened. If the play is in trouble, the playwright gets no sleep for weeks. And then, she wrote, one day you look up at the stage, and, yes, the play is much better, and the performances are much better, and the audience seems to be having a good time. And yet - the play you're seeing on the stage isn't the play you had in mind at all.

It's one thing to reach that point in a project and retain enough perspective to be honest about it. It may be bad - but it isn't insane - to say, "Well, this play isn't what I had in mind, but you know, the audience is having a good time, and it will pay me enough to go away and try again."

But if you reach the point where the project you're pushing ahead clearly isn't any more the project you had in mind and sold hard, and yet you continue to pretend to yourself and everyone else that it is - then you have the kind of insanity problem where you're eating worms in order to prove you're not an alcoholic.

The honorable thing for the British government to do now is say, "Well, folks, we were wrong. Our opponents were right: the system we had in mind is too complicated, too expensive, and too unpopular because of its privacy-invasiveness. We will think again." Apparently they're so far gone that eating worms looks more sensible.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

February 1, 2008


Large numbers are always fun, and $44.6 billion is a particularly large number. That's how much Microsoft has offered to pay, half cash, half stock, for Yahoo!

Before we get too impressed, we should remember two things: first, half of it is stock, which isn't an immediate drain on Microsoft's resources. Second, of course, is that money doesn't mean the same thing to Microsoft as it does to everyone else. As of last night, Microsoft had $19.09 billion in a nice cash heap, with more coming in all the time. (We digress to fantasise that somewhere inside Microsoft there's a heavily guarded room where the cash is kept, and where Microsoft employees who've done something particularly clever are allowed to roll naked as a reward.)

Even so, the bid is, shall we say, generous. As of last night, Yahoo!'s market cap was $25.63 billion. Yahoo!'s stock has dropped more than 32 percent in the last year, way outpacing the drop of the broader market. When issued, Microsoft's bid of $31 a share represented a 62 percent premium. That generosity tells us two things. First, since the bid was, in the polite market term, "unsolicited", that Microsoft thought it needed to pay that much to get Yahoo!'s board and biggest shareholders to agree. Second, that Microsoft is serious: it really wants Yahoo! and it doesn't want to have to fight off other contenders.

In some cases – most notably Google's acquisition of YouTube – you get the sense that the acquisition is as much about keeping the acquired company out of the hands of competitors as it is about actually wanting to own that company. If Google wanted a slice of whatever advertising market eventually develops around online video clips, it had to have YouTube. Google Video was too little, too late, and if anyone else had bought YouTube Google would never have been able to catch up.

There's an element of that here, in that MSN seems to have no immediate prospect of catching up with Google in the online advertising market. Last May, when a Microsoft-Yahoo! merger was first mooted, CNN noted that even combined MSN and Yahoo! would trail Google in the search market by a noticeable margin. Google has more than 55 percent of the search market; Yahoo! trails distantly with 17 percent and MSN is even further behind with 13 percent. Better, you can hear Microsoft thinking, to trail with 30 percent of the market than 13 percent; unlike most proposals to merge the numbers two and three players in a market, this merger would create a real competitor to the number one player.

In addition, despite the fact that Yahoo!'s profits dropped by 4.6 percent in the last quarter (year on year), its revenues grew in the same period by 11.8 percent. If Microsoft thought about it like a retail investor (or Warren Buffett), it would note two things: the drop in Yahoo!'s share prices make it a much more attractive buy than it was last May; and Yahoo!'s steady stream of revenues makes a nice return on Microsoft's investment all by itself. One analyst on CNBC estimated that return at 5 percent annually – not bad given today's interest rates.

Back in 2000, at the height of the bubble, when AOL merged with Time-Warner (a marriage both have lived to regret), I did a bit of fantasy matchmaking that regrettably has vanished off the Telegraph's site, pairing dot-coms and old-world companies for mergers. In that round, Amazon.com got Wal-Mart (or, more realistically, K-Mart), E*Trade passed up Dow-Jones, publisher of the Wall Street Journal (and may I just say how preferable that would have been to Rupert Murdoch's having bought it) in favor of greater irony with the lottery operator G-Tech, Microsoft got Disney (to split up the ducks), and Yahoo! was sent off to buy Rupert Murdoch's News International.

Google wasn't in the list; at the time, it was still a privately held geeks' favorite, out of the mainstream. (And, of course, some companies that were in the list – notably eToys and QXL – don't exist any more.) The piece shows off rather clearly, however, the idea of the time, which was that online companies could use their ridiculously inflated stock valuations to score themselves real businesses and real revenues. That was before Google showed the way to crack online advertising and turn visitor numbers into revenues.

It's often said that the hardest thing for a new technology company is to develop a second product. Microsoft is one of the few who succeeded in that. But the history of personal computing is still extremely short, and history may come to look at DOS, Windows, and Office as all one product: commercial software. Microsoft has seen off its commercial competitors, but open-source is a genuine threat to drive the price of commodity software to zero, much like the revenues from long distance telephone calls. Looked at that way, there is no doubt that Microsoft's long-term survival as a major player depends on finding a new approach. It has kept pitching for the right online approach: information service, portal, player/DRM, now search/advertising. And now we get to find out whether Google, like very few companies before it, really can compete with Microsoft. Game on.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).