NOTE: One for the techies :-)
COMMENT from Marcus Williamson: Do you remember how slow Tesco was in eliminating GM ingredients back in 1999? Eventually they got rid of them, after considerable resistance, as you can see here:
Here's an interview including a clip from David Sawday of Tesco
Now the one-time Tesco spokesman is involved in trying to push spyware/adware on the British public via an outfit called Phorm, working with BT, TalkTalk and Virgin Media:
More info about the Phorm scheme here:
It looks like the whole idea might go the same way as GM food, thus: initial assurances that all is OK, followed by a 'debate' in the media, realisation that the science doesn't match the promises, followed eventually (when the companies involved realise it'll hit their profits) by a recognition that it's not such a good idea after all...
No amount of PR will convince us to swallow Phorm
The Guardian, April 11 2008 http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2008/apr/11/phorm.gm?gusrc=rss&feed=technology
At first sight you might not see many similarities between a field of sugar beet and the adware company Phorm, which has developed a service that targets adverts to web users according to their browsing habits. But they exist. And lessons from the field of sugar beet should certainly give the company pause for thought. Why? Because the field of sugar beet isn't there any more.
Just under a decade ago I was taken with a group of other journalists from national newspapers out to a field somewhere in East Anglia. Quite where we weren't allowed to know, because the field was planted with genetically modified sugar beet - in what was known as a 'field trial' - and the company running the field trial feared that if we publicised where it was, protesters would come and tear it up before they had been able to find out what effects the crop had on the surrounding ecology.
I covered the saga of GM crops very closely. I quickly became familiar with the concept of volunteer plants (stray crop plants from neighbouring fields that shoot up and chuck seeds about while the real crop is growing quietly) and gene transfer. I'd known about the process of genetic modification for some time: you either inject a new gene into the cells of your target plant, or find some clever plant virus that will do the job for you.
Good news for farmers
The attraction of GM crops was that they would be resistant to various herbicides and pesticides (specifically, those made by the company selling you the GM seeds), so you could more quickly kill off stuff that impeded your crops' growth. In short, good news for farmers, as long as they were willing to be tied to the GM crop company.
What wasn't known was what the effect on other plants, or indeed animals, would be of having all this extra genetic material. Would the herbicide-resistant genes spread to weeds (some are surprisingly close relatives of the food we eat), meaning we'd have a generation of weeds we couldn't kill? Would insects and animals that relied on weeds in fields die for lack of food? Would bees spread GM pollen far enough to make a difference? The ecological impact was unclear.
But what was most unclear, we journalists kept pointing out, was the benefit to the person in the supermarket. We were being asked potentially to sacrifice a chunk of the ecosystem so that a GM company could grow rich and farmers could have a slightly easier time (while giving up some independence to the GM company). Was that really a sensible tradeoff? Would shoppers notice if sugar cost £330 per tonne instead of £340?
The companies had well-briefed PR people, endless diagrams, plenty of money. They went on a PR offensive. Ranged against them were disparate groups whose only certainty was that they didn't like being told what to like, and who still couldn't see any clear benefit to them. At a time when organic food was becoming more popular, why head in the other direction? We had plenty of food; the real problem was that we had too much processed food. The debate got ugly, allegations were made, bad experiments were carried out which destroyed reputations, and exaggerated claims were made on both sides.
That last paragraph could so easily apply to what Phorm is doing. It has hired PR companies as though they were going out of fashion. It has ferried CEO Kent Ertugrul around newspaper offices to make his case. It has applied to government departments to approve its product. It has asked independent consultants to review its product, seeking a clean bill of health.
And yet the question still remains: what are you offering that we couldn't get anyway? Targeted advertising, Phorm replies, and an anti-phishing service. But the latter benefit sounded hollow when Dr Richard Clayton, a security researcher at Cambridge University, told us in the Tech Weekly podcast that BT could offer anti-phishing without having to sign up with Phorm. And my colleague Jack Schofield will tell you that there are plenty of free anti-phishing systems out there: built into Internet Explorer 7, from Google, or through the Firefox browser.
Which leaves us only with targeted advertising. My only experiences of targeted advertising have left me with chills, to be honest. It's either foolish (the offers to 'get best prices on plutonium on eBay!' when you're researching the dynamics of nuclear fission) or worrying (offering life insurance when you hit a particular age, warning of what's ahead). Phorm suggests it could be so much better. My response: I'm happy with things now. Sure, advertising is imperfect ”” 50% is wasted, in the famous aphorism. But it leaves the way open to serendipity. And it also leaves you feeling that you're not being microscopically scrutinised. Think of the relief that Tom Cruise feels in the film Minority Report when the adverts stop speaking directly to him and he knows he's no longer 'visible'.
GM crops aren't grown in the UK now. It's unfortunate for Phorm that it has chosen to persuade people using a method that doesn't work - because their gut reaction tells them they don't trust it.
Is there a solution? I still think that to go with a true opt-in, where people actively have to choose to use its system, is the only way for Phorm to redeem itself in the eyes of the majority. (Some, rather like green pressure groups over GM, won't accept even that concession.) Phorm's system ”” like GM ”” is so complex that only a small group of people will fully understand it.
History doesn't have any hopeful parallels, I'm afraid. Even though Phorm has enough money, at its current spending rate, to keep going for another four years, it should be mindful of what happened with GM. Monsanto was once one of the biggest names in crops; it was the main company pushing GM in the UK. Then its share price crashed and it had to restructure, merging with Pharmacia and Upjohn in 1999.
Don't assume, however, that this means Phorm will be churned up by the combine harvester of history. Last year GM crops were being grown more widely than ever before, on 114m hectares in 23 countries (including 12 developing countries), an increase of 12 million hectares on the previous year. The EU is still blocking imports and cultivation, but it's looking increasingly like a rearguard action. Monsanto is bigger than ever. And Phorm is well-funded, and looking abroad to implement its systems. This is a battle that is far from over.