Is Hitwise in the Phorm biz?

When ad targeters attack their own

What is Hitwise up to?

It's unclear why Microsoft is named in the suit. But it's hardly surprising to hear that Microsoft is tailoring pages and ads according to particular user addresses. After all, it runs a search engine.

But Hitwise is another matter.

Hitwise - now owned by credit checking giant Experian - has made a name for itself by analyzing user traffic it collects from unnamed ISPs across the globe. The company will not say whether ISPs obtain consent from users before tracking their clicks, but it's adamant the data it collects cannot be used to identify the behavior of individuals.

"Hitwise is in the syndicated research business, receiving from ISPs anonymized and summarized online usage data," the company has told The Reg. "Hitwise uses this data to publish independent research information on websites and industries, not users. Hitwise analyzes the anonymized data to provide an aggregate view of the market."

But the company may have developed software that goes a bit further. In April, The Times of London reported that the company was expanding the use of its monitoring software, "braving mounting concerns over internet privacy with plans to launch a service that will track broadband users’ activity so they can be targeted with advertising." Hitwise, the paper said, was prepping a system like Phorm's.

When we asked the company about the report, a spokesman said "Hitwise is not in the behavioral targeting business and just focuses on our competitive intelligence service that uses anonymized ISP data to provide an aggregate view of the market."

And yet the Front Porch suit accuses Hitwise of customizing web pages and/or ads served to particular ISP users. "Defendant Hitwise has infringed, continues to infringe, and unless enjoined will continue to infringe one or more claims of the [Front Porch patent], directly, contributorily, and/or by inducement, by making, selling, and/or offering for sale in this country, and/or importing into this country, and inducing others to use, without license, certain products and/or services that consist of and/or incorporate methods and/or apparatus disclosed in the [patent] for dynamically forming customized web pages," the suit reads.

This is hardly proof that Hitwise is using its ISP monitoring software to tweak content for ISPs. It's just a lawsuit. But when paired with that report from The Times, it raises new questions about the monitoring software Hitwise has already deployed worldwide.

When we asked the company if users can opt out, it said "we cannot speak on behalf of the ISPs." Over 25 million ISP users are affected, including 10 million in the US.

And then there are the other two companies named in the Front Porch suit: Feeva and Kindsight. According to its website, Feeva provides "the digital marketing industry with reliable and verifiable data." Meanwhile, Kindsight says it is "a value-added services provider specializing in network-based security solutions for residential internet use." A spin-off from Alcatel-Lucent, the company was formerly known as Project Rialto.

It has long been rumored that Project Rialto was developing a system similar to Phorm's and NebuAd's. ®

Update

Microsoft has also declined to discuss the suit.

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