Phorm. Phorm, Phorm. Where did it all go wrong?

Elsewhere on these pages my colleague Paul Trotter today reports that privacy activists from the Open Rights Group are urging websites to opt out of Webwise's hot-potato Phorm ad-targeting system.

The ORG espouses a two-way argument: it says Phorm illegally intercepts web users' communications. (Advertisers could care less.) The ORG also argues that using Phorm could damage the very brands that adopt it.

And they're right, dagnammit. What's the point in advertising a product if the very medium you use turns punters against you? And rightly or wrongly, Phorm is deeply unpopular with a cohort of noisy web heads.

Phorm's Webwise tracks your surfing habits, and then targets 'relevant' adverts at you. Even though Webwise anonymises the information to prevent you being identified, this has raised the hackles of privacy campaigners. But you could argue it's merely an extension of the contextual advertising we all see each day.

Google's contextual ads are discreet and actually, on occasion, helpful. (Conventional wisdom has it that most Google searchers' second or third click is on a paid-for link. These are often the most relevant sources of information.)

So here's my two-penneth on Phorm: there's no good reason to fear it (unless you're up to something dodgy. And then the worst that's gonna happen is you get served dodgy ads).

But Phorm's Webwise service has been controversial from the off. People don't like being spied on. And the stink of sneaky, underhand tactics was hardly cleansed by BT's decision to trial the technology in secret, without user consent, during 2006 and 2007. Give a dog a bad name...

Phorm is destined to be a four-letter word with a significant minority of surfers. That particular hobby horse has bolted, so brands would be advised to leave it well alone.

It seems kind of pointless, anyway. If you want to target people who are interested in certain topics, why go to all the trouble of spying on their surfing habits? Catch them at source: stick an ad on a relevant website. (It's none of my business, of course, but if I was flogging a laptop, I'd advertise on PC Advisor's laptops reviews. That's 1.4m people who are interested in laptops, right there. See, no spying required.)

Advertisers and agencies are always looking for the 'next big thing'. They won't be satisfied until adverts for handsoap are laserbeamed into our eyeballs when we sit on the loo. But often as not this is indicative of their desire to be seen to be inventive, rather than any significant potential increase in return on investment.

Phorm's Webwise is largely benign, potentially useful, but probably doomed - at least in its current form [pun intended].