When a user receives 180 software from Ezone.com, a close 180 distribution partner, the user cannot reasonably be said to have consented to 180's subsequent actions. To the extent that disclosures tell users about 180's effects, disclosures use such confusing euphemisms that users cannot discern what 180 will actually do. Furthermore, on-screen disclosures omit important practices that reasonable users would want to know about. Nowhere in the installation procedure does 180 show or even reference a license agreement.
180 uses a variety of installation practices to place its advertising software on users' PCs. For example, 180 has been shown (by me and others [1, 2, 3]) to become installed through security holes, without any notice or consent. 180 sometimes claims that such installations are rogue rule-breakers ("the online equivalent of spammers"), "deceptive," cheating 180, and therefore behaviors 180 wants to stop ("we want them to die a slow and painful death"). I am uncertain whether 180 in fact seeks to stop these nonconsensual installations -- especially since such installations have continued for so many months on end (a problem that does not plague legitimate software distributors, e.g. Google), and especially since 180 previously recruited distribution partners using unsolicited commercial email (raising questions as to the care with which 180 selects its partners).
But suppose 180 is telling the truth about its desire to eliminate "rogue" distributors. Then it's helpful to look at 180's "best" installation practices.
In this article, I look at installations of 180solutions software by Ezone.com. Ezone seems to be a close business partner of 180: 180 issued a press release promoting its relationship with Ezone, listing Ezone as one of just fourteen "Zango Backstage Network" partners. Furthermore, 180 keeps Ezone on 180's exclusion list, such that 180 popups never cover Ezone's site. Yet my testing shows numerous important shortcomings in Ezone's installation of 180 software. Some specifics:
Installation at Sites Targeted at Children
180's Zango software is promoted at Ezone.com, a site that describes itself as offering "free, fun, family games." Ezone's Privacy Statement (archive: web page, screenshot) specifically claims that Ezone "meets the guidelines of TRUSTe's Children's program" -- indicating Ezone's intention to cater to children. Beyond offering games, Ezone's site includes overstated cartoon characters, simple language, and straightforward designs that are particularly likely to appeal to children.
Ezone is but one of many 180solutions partners targeted at children. 180's Backstage Network press release mentions other sites seemingly targeted at children and youth. 180 partner sites offer cartoons (JibJab and Media Pickle), games (3DJoe, All Games Free, BoneLand, Kings of Chaos, and Newgrounds), popular music (Sir Mix-A-Lot), and even "sound effects for prank phone call needs" (Goonland).
Some adults may also be interested in some of the 180 Backstage sites. But in my experience, the majority of these sites are more likely to be of interest to children than to adults.
Installation Disclosures: Misleading Statements, Euphemisms, and Material Omissions
When Ezone encourages users to accept 180 Zango, Ezone and 180 fail to tell users about the material effects of installing Zango.
Ezone begins by suggesting that adding Zango will cause a user's PCs to show fewer ads -- claiming that installing Zango will "remove all advertising (and popups) from every page of Ezone.com." (See inset image at right.) My testing contradicts this claim. (I continue to receive ads from Ezone even after accepting 180. Screenshot.) In any event, Ezone's "remove ... advertising" claim omits the important fact that installing 180 will increase the amount of advertising users receive elsewhere on the web.
If a user responds to Ezone's initial "remove ... advertising" offer, Ezone then repeats the claimed benefit of a reduction in advertising -- again emphasizing that 180 offers an "advertising free version" of Ezone with "no banners, no pop-ups." Ezone even puts the claimed no-advertising benefit in bold type. But Ezone reverts to ordinary type when it admits that the advertising exclusion is on Ezone.com only. (See inset image at right. Text truncation is preserved from original Ezone site as rendered by IE6.)
Notwithstanding its earlier claims of a reduction in online advertising, Ezone ultimately does disclose that Zango will show "sponsor websites." (See red underlining in image at right.) But in my experience, typical users are unlikely to understand that 180's showing of "sponsor websites" means presenting users with extra pop-up ads. So users who agree to Zango "sponsor websites" may not realize what Zango will actually do.
Ezone further claims that Zango will show "an average of two to three" "sponsor websites" (pop-up ads) per day. (Red underlining in image at right.) This is a claim often advanced by 180. But in my testing, Zango actually shows far more ads than this claim suggests. Perhaps Zango only shows a few ads per user per day when averaging includes those users who don't turn on their computers, don't connect to the Internet, or don't use the web. But in my testing, it is a rare web user who receives so few pop-up ads from Zango. Indeed, I often see Zango ads shown as often as once every few minutes.
Ezone also prominently asserts that Zango "does not collect or retain any personally identifiable information." (See the bullet point at right.) Again, this claim is true as far as it goes. But here too, 180 makes important omissions. What information will 180 collect or retain? Ezone doesn't say. In fact, 180 will track the web sites and URLs that each user visits, along with a unique user ID assigned to each user as well as each user's geographic location. These are important provisions -- facts which reasonable users would want to know about. Yet 180 and Ezone do nothing to bring these facts to users' attention.
The Installation Procedure: No License Agreement Display
One striking characteristic of 180's installation at Ezone is that 180 never shows or even mentions a license agreement.
Rather than showing a license, 180 and Ezone use the following simplified installation method:
1) Click on the "Free Download" button.
2) Press Open.
3) Receive the 180 Zango software.
See installation screenshots and inset images at right.
In my testing, the entire process
How should we interpret 180's failure to show a license agreement? In general, I'm not a big fan of license agreements: My sense is that many licenses are excessively lengthy, poorly-presented, confusing, and overwhelming. (See e.g. my criticism of Claria's lengthy and one-sided license.) A license agreement alone is a poor way to tell users about a program's important characteristics and effects.
But showing a license nonetheless offers certain benefits. For example, when a vendor takes the time to show a license and requires each user to press a button with such license presented on-screen, users are reminded (at least somewhat) that they're installing software on their computers, that such software may have serious effects, and that it's worth taking a bit of time to think carefully about whether such installations are actually desirable. Skipping the license display step discourages this additional evaluation.
Here, 180's failure to show a license fits into an overall trivialization of the significance of installing 180 software. In particular, 180 fails to show a license, and 180 simultaneously fails to disclose the various important downsides of installing its software (such as receiving extra ads and sharing certain otherwise-private information). Taken as a whole, this installation procedure asks users to "accept" 180 without ever being told what 180 is or what it will do if installed.
Discouraging Users from Removing 180
A variety of 180solutions practices deter users from removing Zango even if users explicitly express their intent to do so (i.e. by activating the Zango entry in Control Panel's Add/Remove Programs listing).
When a user selects Zango's entry in Add/Remove Programs, 180 shows a dialog box attempting to discourage removal. The dialog box begins by setting out the purported benefits of Zango (including the three bullet points at right). But 180 further issues a warning that is particularly likely to discourage removal: 180 states that "uninstalling Zango will disable any Zango-based applications or tools on your computer." 180 emphasizes this warning by showing it in a font larger than other text in the dialog box, and formatting it with indentation, a distinctive background color, and a border box that all serve to further emphasize its apparent significance.
Notwithstanding 180's emphasis on the "will disable any Zango-based applications" warning, this message is a false alarm for those users who received Zango from Ezone: Such users do not have applications "based" on Zango, and therefore no applications will be disabled by removing Zango. So this warning is inapplicable as to such users -- but inexplicably 180 shows the message anyway.
Furthermore, in my hands-on testing of programs that come with Zango, this warning is largely false as to them too. Most such programs continue to function even if Zango is removed.
Users are further discouraged from removing Zango by the placement of buttons at the bottom of Zango's uninstall confirmation screen. Typical practice in Windows wizard-style dialog boxes -- windows with a large body section above a set of choice buttons -- is to put an affirmative button (i.e. "continue") at the bottom-right corner, and to put cancel at bottom-left. Furthermore, the affirmative button is generally the Windows default (indicated by a dotted outline and darker shadow). 180 reverses both of these conventions. In particular, 180 puts the "Keep Zango" button in the bottom-right corner -- the location that, by Windows convention, should be consistent with the user's prior request (to remove Zango).
When a user receives 180 software from Ezone.com, the user cannot reasonably be said to have consented to 180's subsequent actions. A user may have clicked a link and pressed an "open" button, but nowhere was the user warned of the consequences of installation. Nowhere did 180 or Ezone admit to tracking what web sites users visit, and where a disclosure alluded to showing online advertising, the warning used a euphemism so obscure that users cannot be expected to understand. Furthermore, 180's solicitation of installations at Ezone is ill-founded -- both because the Ezone site targets children (who cannot consent to software installation), and because Ezone's promotions repeatedly emphasize a purported reduction in advertising, without acknowledging that in fact 180 will show users extra ads.
180 has the ability to correct these deficiencies. Rather than merely installing immediately when a user presses Open, 180's installer could first present more information about 180's practices, its effects on privacy, and the advertisements that it shows. Furthermore, 180 could demand that its partners promote 180 software only in particular ways (e.g. with suitable disclosures on the web pages that link to 180), and 180 could refuse to partner with certain web sites (e.g. those that largely cater to children).
180 has previously blamed "guys in Bermuda, offshore" for nonconsensual installation of 180's software. But 180 can't claim that close partners like Ezone are hard to find. Rather, if 180 is dissatisfied with the installations described above, 180 itself is well-situated to make corrections.
Update (May 5): Ezone's CEO wrote to me to report that Ezone will no longer distribute software from 180solutions.
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