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How Expedia Funds Spyware

September 7, 2005

Unwanted advertising programs -- typically called spyware -- are funded by thousands of the world's largest companies and most respected advertisers. Ask most of these advertisers about their support for spyware, and they'll say they didn't know. After all, their affiliates might have bought the ads. Their outsourced advertising placement firms might have made the decisions. Or pay-per-click search engines (including Google and Yahoo) might have syndicated their ads to spyware vendors, without advertisers' knowledge or consent. (Details: Google, Yahoo)

But a few advertisers have the gall to defend advertising through spyware. Earlier this year, the Associated Press asked Expedia about its support for spyware. Expedia's spokesman responded:

"It is just a marketing tool that we use."

Expedia subsequently claimed to have "rigorous standards" for advertising software, including "mak[ing] sure customers want [the] ads."

Despite Expedia's claims of user consent, Expedia advertises with numerous programs that don't get user consent at all.


Expedia Supports 180solutions, Direct Revenue, and eXact Advertising

The screenshots below show Expedia ads shown by the vendors listed at right. Below each vendor's name are potentially-objectionable practices of that vendor -- practices observed currently or in recent months. In each instance, practices include installation through security holes, with no notice or consent.

All ads were observed in September 2005. Click an ad to see a full-size screenshot with additional commentary.

An Expedia popup shown by 180solutions when I  browsed to aa.com.  

180solutions (Zango / 180search Assistant)

An Expedia popunder shown by Direct Revenue when I browsed to jetblue.com.  Shown after activation of the popunder.

Direct Revenue (Aurora, Ceres, etc.)

An Expedia popunder shown by eXact Advertising when I browsed to jetblue.com.  Shown after activation of the popunder.

eXact Advertising (BullsEye)


Intermediaries Placing and Tracking Expedia's Spyware Ads

Comments from Expedia staff indicate that Expedia is aware of its relationships with "adware" vendors. Nonetheless, advertising intermediaries help facilitate, track, and fund these relationships. Users may therefore place some blame on advertising intermediaries.

In my May analysis of intermediaries helping to fund spyware, I offered as an example an Expedia ad served by 180solutions via aQuantive's Atlas Solutions.

Other Expedia ads flow through other intermediaries, although each of the ads shown above ultimately reaches Expedia via Atlas Solutions. For example, the ad shown by eXact also passes through Xctrk.com (SearchBoss) and 24/7 Real Media before reaching Atlas.

Although spyware traffic reaches Expedia through advertising intermediaries, Expedia's servers receive detailed information about the sources of newly-arrived users referred through spyware advertising. For example, see the partial screenshot below, showing an Expedia popup delivered by 180solutions, covering American Airlines at aa.com. Notice that the URL to Expedia includes the string "metdr" in the URL bar. "Metdr" is an abbreviation for MetricsDirect, 180's advertising sales unit. The presence of this text in Expedia's URL indicates Expedia's specific knowledge that the ad is coming from 180solutions. Under these circumstances, Expedia cannot claim to be unaware that it is supporting 180solutions. My full ad screenshots present similar tracking codes in Expedia's ads as shown by other spyware vendors.


What Expedia Should Do

While Expedia continues advertising with notorious spyware vendors, other major advertisers have ceased relationships with such vendors and publicly voiced their disapproval of these vendors' practices. In June 2004, Major League Baseball announced (paid registration required)) that it won't work with companies who use spyware -- specifically mentioning unwanted advertisements as a negative consequence of spyware, and thereby seeking to implicate the various vendors Expedia supports. Verizon also said it would cease advertising through what it called "adware." Wells Fargo staff wrote an op-ed criticizing spyware, noting negative effects of unwanted advertising software on PC reliability as well as on web site integrity. More recently, Netflix announced its intention to cease such advertising (though in my testing, some Netflix ads are still distributed through the vendors listed above, often intermediated through Netflix's affiliate program).

Expedia's recent comments to the Associated Press propose an appropriate initial standard -- that ads shouldn't be shown to users through advertising software users didn't agree to install. But if Expedia aspires to enforce this standard, it needs to better examine how advertising software actually becomes installed. As indicated by the many links above, spyware researchers have uncovered numerous nonconsensual installations of the very programs Expedia currently supports. Expedia staff should review industry sources and perhaps even conduct hands-on tests of their own, to make sure the vendors Expedia supports are not vendors that install without consent or otherwise engage in undesired practices.

These lessons also apply to other large travel sites. In my testing, travel ads appear particularly frequently through spyware, and in the course of recent testing, I received spyware-delivered ads promoting Cheaptickets, Hotels.com, Hotwire, Orbitz, Priceline, and Travelocity. In many instances, these vendors hire spyware to target each other -- e.g. Travelocity might buy ads that cover Priceline's site, but once a user reaches Travelocity, a new Priceline pop-up ad will pull the consumer right back. These many spyware-delivered ads entail large payments from travel services (and ultimately the consumers who fund them) to spyware vendors. The online travel industry would surely be better off if all firms agreed to cease this aggressive spyware-delivered advertising. By reducing funding of spyware, such an agreement would offer substantial benefits to consumers too.