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Berners-Lee wary of unsolicited Web tracking--of any kind

Web protocols creator says he's troubled by potential privacy risks posed by advertising-oriented tracking software such as Phorm.

Update, 1:23 p.m. Monday: Background was added about the debate in the U.K. over the use of Phorm's tracking software.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web and senior researcher at MIT, recently described his vision for a semantic Web that, instead of analyzing statistical data focused on people, would draw on a layer of metadata to highlight more-complex connections between all types of data, from your banking activity to your photo collection to your business calendar.

But Berners-Lee's enthusiasm for innovation on the Web is tempered by anything that might compromise user privacy. In a story published Monday by the BBC News, he cited his concerns about Open Internet Exchange, an Internet ad platform developed by Web-technology company Phorm. Phorm, whose clients include BT, Virgin Media, and Carphone Warehouse's TalkTalk, offers a system that connects advertisers, Web sites, and ISPs to produce more-targeted advertising based on a user's browsing trends.

Berners-Lee wants no part of it.

"I want to know if I look up a whole lot of books about some form of cancer that that'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 percent because they've figured I'm looking at those books," he told the BBC.

His online data and Web history, he went on to say, belongs to him alone.

"It's mine--you can't have it," he said. "If you want to use it for something, then you have to negotiate with me. I have to agree, I have to understand what I'm getting in return."

The BBC story noted that negative publicity about its Open Internet Exchange prompted Phorm to offer all users the option to opt out of its tracking service. On its Web site, Phorm touts its focus on "creating a new 'gold standard' for user privacy, a more relevant Internet experience, and more value for advertisers, publishers, Internet service providers, and others in the online ecosystem."

Berners-Lee said ISPs should offer an opt-in--rather than opt-out--option.

Berners-Lee's remarks further stoked a long-running debate in the U.K. over the merits of Phorm's service, which security firm Trend Micro has described as "adware." A story published on Monday by technology news site The Register noted that BT admitted to testing the Phorm software without informing the BT customers whose data was used in the test.

"We conducted a very small-scale technical test of a prototype advertising platform on one exchange in June 2007," BT said in a statement. "The test was specifically conducted to evaluate the functional and technical performance of the platform. Absolutely no personally identifiable information was processed, stored or disclosed during this trial. As with all service providers, it is important for BT to ensure that, before any potential new technologies are employed, they are robust and fit for purpose."

Meanwhile, another BBC News story published on Monday notes that the Foundation for Information Policy Research, a think tank for Internet policy in Britain, has warned that Phorm might contravene the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, which protects users from unlawful interception of information. FIPR has written an open letter to the U.K.'s information commissioner, Richard Thomas, arguing that Phorm must not only seek the consent of Web users but also of Web site operators, the story says.