Ask Jeeves promotes its toolbar software via banner ads shown on sites offering kids games. In the course of such installations AJ never affirmatively shows its license agreement, nor does it use the word "toolbar" to describe the software to be installed. Users with XP SP2 may not even see a reference to an AJ license agreement.
Ask Jeeves distributes a variety of programs that offer users some trinket of apparent value (e.g. smileys for email programs) while also adding an extra toolbar to users' web browsers. Ask Jeeves promotes these programs in ways that do not entail meaningful user consent. This article examines one such installation, its methods, its (purported) license agreement, and its effects. Notable characteristics:
I have observed Ask Jeeves software promoted at a variety of sites clearly targeted at kids. This page documents AJ ads at Playloader.com, which describes itself as offering "free online games." Of course, not all online games are specifically targeted at kids. But the games at this site are clearly for kids; they are cartoon games with names like "Skoolrush" (s.i.c.), "Monkey Slide," "Lunar Mouse House," and "Junk Food Jack." Furthermore, the Ask Jeeves ad is likely to be particularly attractive to kids -- with overstated smiley faces, cartoon characters, and the like.
What's the big deal about offering software via methods that tend to reach children? For one, children generally cannot enter into contracts -- so even if a child clicks the "Yes" button Ask Jeeves subsequently presents, its license terms may not be binding. Also, children may be less able to assess the merits of an Ask Jeeves offer -- less able to determine whether Ask Jeeves software is a good value, less likely to realize the privacy and other consequences of installing such software, less inclined to examine a lengthy license agreement.
Interestingly, the next-to-last paragraph of Ask Jeeves' 108-paragraph, 6,251-word license agreement does state a limitation on the ages of permissible users: "If you are under 13 ... you may not download." But as discussed below, Ask Jeeves does not affirmatively show users this license, and in some cases it fails even to link to this agreement. No provision in Ask Jeeves' prominent text imposes any limitation on user age.
Euphemisms and Half-Hearted Disclosures
Ask Jeeves' installers use a variety of euphemisms to avoid telling users the true effects of Ask Jeeves' programs.
For example, one Ask Jeeves disclosure admits that Smiley Central "comes with FREE MyWebSearch accessible directly from your browser." See second screenshot above. This disclosure fails to use the ordinary term for MyWebSearch, i.e. a "toolbar."
A user told of a feature "accessible ... from [a] browser" cannot reasonably know that the true effect of the feature is to take on-screen space and to reduce the amount of screen space available for other purposes.
Ask Jeeves' installers also fail to give users enough information to let them decide whether the offered software is useful and whether users in fact want it. For example, the only description of MyWebSearch that AJ shows is that the program is "free" and "accessible directly from [a user's] browser." But what does MyWebSearch actually do? Ask Jeeves disclosures don't say.
License Agreement - Not Shown or Linked To
In the installation shown in the thumbnails at right, the Ask Jeeves license agreement is never actually presented to users.
The installation details page does offer a link to the license, but this link is off-screen on web browsers running at 800x600 resolution. Users must therefore scroll even to see the link to the license -- and then must affirmatively click to read it.
The installation confirmation screen does offer a link to the license. But the link is not labeled with any mention of the license. Instead, the link is labeled only "Smiley Central, My Web Search, Search Assistant, ..." See third inset image at right. Without any on-screen text alerting users to the link's significance or effects, users cannot reasonably know that they can (or are expected to) click on this link to learn of additional conditions to which they are (purportedly) bound.
If a user presses "Install" in the installation confirmation screen, the AJ install proceeds immediately. A user has no further opportunity to cancel or decline installation.
Users without XP Service Pack 2 get a different license installation confirmation screen that does link to the license and that does label its link. See non-SP2 alternative confirmation screen. But in this variant, the link's labeling is so convoluted that it becomes hard to read and understand: The link is a single 41-word sentence, with three independent clauses and six verbs. Furthermore, the link describes an "installer" -- suggesting that further description, disclosure, and confirmation may occur if a user presses yes, giving the user an additional opportunity to cancel. In fact, if a user presses Yes, the install proceeds immediately, giving users no further opportunity to cancel installation.
Other Installation Methods
The installation described on this page includes what I've called an "installation details" screen, giving users four bullet points of information (however sterilized with euphemisms) about Ask Jeeves's software. But not all Ask Jeeves installations include this step. See, for example, an AJ ActiveX installation prompt I received while browsing the iowrestling.com site in March 2005. A single press of the Yes button in that popup installs AJ software immediately -- without any further information, disclosures, or confirmation.
Some Ask Jeeves installations occur without giving the affected user any notice, nor requesting or obtaining any consent. See a video of such an installation of an AJ toolbar.
Some Ask Jeeves installations come in bundles with other programs. See my analysis of the iMesh installation, which installs an AJ toolbar without using the word "toolbar" anywhere in the lengthy license agreement. See my analysis of the Kazaa installation, which installs an AJ toolbar without first showing a license agreement. Kazaa users wanting to see the AJ license must request the counterintuitively-named "Altnet" license agreement, then scroll to page 48, where the AJ license begins.
Last Updated: May 9, 2005 - Sign up for notification of major updates and related work.