Dateline 25 March 2010 - I'm talking to Tug Netlurker, CEO of Smurf, the Internet Intervention Tool providers; their motto 'Whenever you surf, we're the m(an) in the middle'.
"Firstly", I say, "I want to thank you for agreeing to this one-to-one interview".
Tug's easy smile doesn't waver, but one eyebrow twitches. "Can we say 'face-to-face' interview?" he asks, "Only we really trying to move on from that 121 thing".
I'm happy to oblige. "It's been quite a journey, Tug", I say. "Can we revisit your progress over the last two years?"
"Well, as you know, we started out small, just serving the customers of the UK's biggest ASPs".
"ASPs?" I ask.
"Yes, Advertising Service Providers. I think they were called ISPs back then, but we like to think the new name a much more accurate reflection of what they do now. Back then, we limited ourselves to mining all the traffic for advertising keywords. A few geeks got a little cross, and claimed we were the thin end of the wedge, but nobody took much notice of them. And that little unpleasantness about us maybe not complying with UK law was soon straightened out once we got the amendments we wanted through Parliament".
"After that", Tug goes on, "it was pretty straightforward. Once people were used to seeing better ads, it was a small step to showing them more ads - while they were waiting for web pages to load, and so on. But our big breakthrough was when we realized it was pretty inefficient just waiting for the customers to choose to go to the web sites of our advertising partners. And it would be much better to look at our customer's searches, and take them to a suitable site straightaway - but of course, one served by our advertising".
And it is indeed a new world on the Internet today. As the wags say "It's called Smurf because you go blue in the face trying to get to the website that you want".
But the backlash is starting. Those few tiny niche ISPs not hooked up with Smurf are gaining customers from the big three - BT, Ho Media and StalkStalk - who use it.
And maybe the ASPs think it too. I spoke to a representative of British Telephorm. "Hell, it's gone too far, and we know it now. But you try unhooking this stuff. The Smurf software - Matryoshka - is everywhere in our system, and as fast as you peel off one layer, you find another layer underneath. Whoever designed this stuff must have grown up with those nested Russian dolls all around."
But back to Tug. He's frank about the problems. "I guess we tried to boil the frog too quickly", he says.
"Boil the frog?"
"Yes - it's well known that if you put a frog in a pan of cold water and heat him up v-e-r-y slowly, he just won't notice. Even when the water boils. And that was our plan for the great British public. Perhaps we should have moved more slowly."
But Tug is still bullish about the future. "We know how to fix this. We'll start letting the customers go to the sites they choose, instead of our sites, once again. But we can still protect our revenues. We'll use our DPI ( ed: Deep Privacy Intrusion) technology to figure out how badly they want to go to these sites, set the tariffs accordingly, and they can click agreement to go through. After all, what's a few micropence per click? It's not much more than the ad revenue they are depriving us of, after all. And the ASPs can collect it for us via their monthly billing".
It's a breathtaking vision. But I have to ask, "One last question, Tug. How is it, do you think, that so few people saw it coming?"
"Beats me", replies Tug, "If they'd known where to look, it was patently obvious".