BT AGM 2008, Protesting on the Inside

Arrival

I arrived early (about 9:30) to try to get my questions registered. As those who were there will confirm, I had a very noticeable tee shirt on, with STOP PHORM in huge letters across my back.

It was immediately obvious to me... BT had moved the shareholders entrance to the other side of the building from the protest.

I left a printout of my questions with a BT Corporate Comms guy at around 9:50, he assured me they would be keyed in to the bizarre question registration system. His typing was very slow. So I went for a walk.

Pre AGM, "BT Internet Rangers"

I found some BT techs promoting BT Internet Rangers; something to do with kids teaching their parents how to use the computer. So I let them try to sell the idea to me, before asking if they thought profiling kids was a good idea. They politely referred me back to the BT Corporate Comms people.

So, back to the BT Corporate Comms guy, to find he's decided to ignore some of my questions. I point out I have the right to put questions, and insist he puts some of the remainder in. But there's a queue behind me of angry shareholders, and the AGM is about to start. I cut my losses and go in.

AGM

You'll have to forgive a slightly hazy recollection. I was very nervous inwardly if not outwardly, and couldn't take notes. There were around 800 shareholders present, the majority over 50 (not a criticism by any means, older people understand the importance of personal privacy well).

The AGM opens with presentations by Michael Rake, and Ian Livingston. No mention of Webwise in either.

So the first resolution comes up. I introduced myself, and explained I was representing BadPhorm, No Deep Packet Inspection (nodpi.org), and Dephormation.

I told the board I was surprised Mr Livingston had not mentioned the Webwise product, given it was due to launch in 24 hours time (of course it isn't likely at all, but I couldn't resist a mild stab).

    Resolution 1 receive accounts and reports of directors

    Could Sir Michael state the costs and revenue arising from BT's unprofitable 3 year 'partnership' with controversial firm Phorm/121Media, and explain whether he considers that it has damaged BT's corporate reputation for trustworthy business conduct?

To my surprise the question was passed by the chairman to Gavin Patterson. He waffled away, mentioned customer participation... I interrupted him to point out the hundreds of thousands of people involved, and ask if customers had consented? He didn't enjoy that aide memoire.

Once I realised he might be involved I ran out and demanded the BT Corporate Comms guy put my question to Gavin Patterson (resolution 7) into his rubbish little computer.

He went a little pale, and said "I'm going to have to ask someone about that", and promptly vanished talking quietly on his mobile. After a few minutes waiting, I was getting annoyed, and made the staff around me aware it would be all over the press if he didn't put a shareholder question to the board. He came back and reluctantly put the question in. So I returned to the AGM.

Throughout the question and answer session, as I was putting questions, the gentleman to the right of Michael Rake was making what looked like frantic telephone calls to some unseen source of information or advice.

Second resolution I opened by saying how pleased I was to hear that BT recognised the importance of "Getting it right first time" and in that context...

    Resolution 2 - approve directors remuneration

    How does Mr. Livingston's remuneration reflect his role in covert 'stealth' (BT's own words) trials of Phorm/121Media advertising systems in 2006 and 2007, and any resulting damage to BT's corporate reputation?

    The  trials were branded 'disgraceful' by Don Foster MP,  'remarkably foolish' and apparently 'utterly illegal' by the Earl of Northesk.

A moment of silence from the board, a nervous glance from Ian Livingston, then Mr Rake answered the question with the usual Phorm waffle. The question was passed to the man with the red telephone, who read me a piece of policy on Directors pay.

Onward to resolution 4.

    Resolution 4 re-elect Hanif Lalani as a director

    Does Mr Lalani believe that eCommerce businesses will welcome BT's decision to share their private unencrypted commercial communications data with an advertising company (Phorm) that uses the derived marketing intelligence to promote their competitors?

I cited an example, Dabs.com (owned by BT)... would they want to share their customer communications with Maplin Electronics? I have to say I was actually impressed, Mr Lalani is no fool and clearly knows his topic. He saw the trap, grinned, and dodged the question with an eloquent but non committal reply. He couldn't say yes, he evidently values his reputation. He couldn't say no, he would embarrass his colleagues.

I didn't press the point; I don't believe he was involved with the Phorm decisions, and effectively he'd given me the answer I expected.

The next question I managed to put was resolution 7.

    Resolution 7 - elect Gavin Patterson as a director

    Did Gavin Patterson,  as Managing Director of Consumer Division BT Retail, authorize covert 'stealth' (in BT's own words) trials of Phorm/121Media advertising systems in 2006 and 2007,  technology that caused Professor Ross Anderson of Cambridge University and FIPR to observe if you care about your privacy, do not use BT?

I made a point of projecting my voice when quoting Ross Anderson. That seemed to leave the board, and shareholders reeling. Again, momentarily, stunned silence. Michael Rake started waffling again, so I interrupted him to point out the question was not to him, it was to Gavin Patterson...

Cue more Phorm nonsense from Mr. Patterson so I interrupted him to say "its a simple yes or no question Mister Patterson, yes or no?". Of course I didn't get my answer.

On to resolution 9, appointment of Ms Patricia Hewitt.

    Resolution 9 elect Patricia Hewitt MP as a director

    When was Ms Hewitt first informed by BT that it had conducted covert 'stealth' trials (BT's own words) of Phorm/121Media advertising systems? Does BT believe Ms Hewitt, or any other MP, would welcome interception of their unencrypted communications for advertising?

Michael Rake tried to shield her with more waffle. Ms Hewitt is obviously skilled at handling difficult questions, more so than he is... She rescued him from deep embarrassment. She didn't specify a date, but mentioned a board meeting. Amazingly, she left herself hostage to fortune by saying she would opt in to Phorm because she trusted their assurances.

On to resolution 10, I apologised to shareholders explaining that I wasn't fond of the sound of my own voice, joking that if they didn't thank me for this question now, they might thank me at the next AGM;

    Resolution 10 appoint PWC as auditors

    Have auditors taken into account any future liabilities for copyright infringement claims, EU fines, OFCOM penalties, and criminal legal proceedings arising from BT's use of Phorm Webwise  when preparing company accounts?

Michael Rake offered yet more of the tired Phorm waffle.

At some point, I don't remember when, I reminded the directors that the Ernst and Young report was written in terms of USA law, not UK or EU law.

I also recall Gavin Patterson saying, when I challenged him about the demand for Webwise, he would reveal the market research for shareholders.

Michael Rake also stated at one point that he thought there had been a "misunderstanding" about Webwise, I retorted "that's one word for it".

After the Meeting

After the meeting, while socialising with shareholders, the crowd suddenly parted (rather like the Red Sea in the cheesy film classic Ten Commandments!!) and I found myself unexpectedly face to face with Ms Hewitt. She smiled sweetly, we had a polite exchange of views, but agreed to disagree amicably.

I mingled with shareholders afterwards, many wanted to talk to me about Phorm and Webwise. Some were just pleased to see the board being held firmly to account.

Conclusions

I think that was probably as bad an AGM as BT could possibly have hoped for. It was completely dominated by Webwise, and the directors were made to look extremely uncomfortable.

I know some online will be unhappy I didn't challenge them more aggressively; the reality is I would never have prevailed so I didn't try very hard. BT Shareholders are a genteel bunch, I didn't want to make myself the villain of the piece.

Curious thing; Ian Livingston answered not one single question that I put to the board, and the words Webwise or Phorm did not pass his lips once during the AGM.

One thing I did learn from shareholders was how great a concern phishing is to some people, particularly people who are relying on savings and investments for income. Its important we get the message across that filtering (as occurs already for child abuse sites) does not require advertising or mass surveillance. The two are completely separate and independent. If people do want network phishing filters, and choose to opt in to that as a service, why not? I think that's a great idea if that's what people want. Everything else about Phorm is vile, evil, and repels me to the core.

I was delighted to meet Serial, Alex, Phormwatch, Dave the Jag, Madslug (thanks for the sarnie), and the others... It was a very very special day.

Thanks also to the many people who couldn't make it, yet made it possible through donations of time, money and effort. Your contribution is appreciated.

BT official 2008 AGM questions list