UK to Respond to EU Soon Regarding Targeted Ad System

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The U.K government expects to respond next month to a European Commission query regarding whether a targeted Internet advertising system violates European Union data protection regulations, a spokeswoman said Wednesday.

The Webwise system, from the company Phorm, tracks a person's online history in order to deliver targeted advertisements related to the content the person has viewed.

Targeted advertising platforms such as Webwise and NebuAd are under scrutiny by the U.K. and U.S. governments, which are concerned about how those systems handle personal information and impact privacy.

Last month, the Commission sent a query to the U.K.'s Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR). The department is currently consulting other U.K. agencies such as the Home Office and the Information Commissioner's Office, which oversees data protection issues, said a BERR spokeswoman.

The text of the Commission's query, sent by the Information Society and Media Directorate-General, hasn't been made public. BERR may decide to publicly release its response depending on interest, the spokeswoman said.

Webwise has come under fierce criticism from privacy activists who maintain that the system poses a data security risk. Phorm maintains the system protects Web surfers' anonymity while allowing ISPs (Internet Service Providers) to gain new revenue from online advertising.

The Webwise system attracted further controversy after it was revealed BT conducted trials of the system in 2006 and 2007 without informing users. Some campaigners are pushing U.K. law enforcement to investigate if the trials violated data protection regulations.

So far, the U.K. government has given Webwise the OK as long as users are required to opt in to the system. The Information Commissioner's Office said in April it will monitor BT's trial, while the Home Office has said the systems don't violate the law as long as Internet service providers obtain the consent of users.

BT said Wednesday it plans to conduct another trial soon, but did not specify a date. Virgin Media said it is still evaluating Webwise, while Carphone Warehouse could not be immediately reached.

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