Hotbar promotes its toolbar software via banner ads shown on sites offering kids games. In the course of such installations, Hotbar does not affirmatively show its license agreement, and users who request the license must scroll through dozens of pages to a mislabeled section to learn more about the ads to be shown. Hotbar's on-screen notifications provide one notice that Hotbar is "ad-supported," but Hotbar fails to disclose the specific nature of these ads, or to offer users a "cancel" button if they do not accept. When installed, Hotbar shows ads in browser toolbars, pop-ups, pop-unders, auto-opening sidebars, and desktop icons.
Hotbar 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 and bombarding users with frequent and intrusive advertising. Hotbar promotes its programs in ways that do not entail meaningful user consent. This article examines one such installation, its (purported) license agreement, and its effects. Notable characteristics:
I have observed Hotbar software promoted at a variety of sites clearly targeted at kids. This page documents Hotbar ads at thekidzpage.com, a site which I believe is clearly targeted at kids. The site's very name is a play on "kids," and its title bar and "welcome" text both say it's "for children." Its advertisement pitch specifically says it's "for kids and adults ... family and students ... school-aged children along with the 'grown-ups' who supervise them." It's linked from Yahooligans (Yahoo for kids). Furthermore, the Hotbar ad is likely to be particularly attractive to kids -- with overstated smiley faces, including an enlarged central image with its eyes, tongue, and hands in a characteristically child-like pose. See first inset image above.
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 Hotbar subsequently presents, Hotbar's license terms may not be binding. Also, children may be less able to assess the merits of an Hotbar offer -- less able to determine whether Hotbar 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.
Neither the Hotbar installer screens nor the Hotbar license impose any restriction on the ages of users who may install or use Hotbar. The 30th on-screen page of Hotbar's 4,562-word license agreement offers a paragraph entitled "Children 13 and under." But that section makes no limitation on who can install Hotbar, instead merely encouraging parents of teenagers to determine whether the service is appropriate. Oddly, by issuing this special warning only to parents of teenagers, this clause also suggests that Hotbar is fine for toddlers but inappropriate for teens. The relevant language: "[P]arents or guardians of children over the age of thirteen should be aware that the Service is designed to appeal to a broad audience. Accordingly, it is your responsibility to determine whether any portion of the Service is inappropriate for your child." (emphasis added).
Typical users -- especially kids -- are unlikely to notice Hotbar's special kids provisions, when buried so far within a lengthy license that in turn is only shown if users specifically request it. Nothing within Hotbar's main installer screens in any way alerts users to special license provisions for kids or to the possibility that Hotbar is inappropriate for the very users who visit the sites that advertise Hotbar.
Thekidzpage.com is but one of many similar kids sites promoting Hotbar. Hotbar's many relationships with such sites proceed via intermediaries such as, in this instance, Fastclick (Nasdaq: FSTC). The Hotbar ad at issue was placed onto the site through a Fastclick placement and/or tracking service, indicating that Fastclick profits from Hotbar installations performed on Thekidzpage.com.
Hidden and Half-Hearted Disclosures
A user who obtains Hotbar from Thekidzpage has no reasonable basis to expect the intrusive advertisements Hotbar ultimately shows. This section presents the deficiencies in Hotbar's notice procedure -- Hotbar's failure to tell users about its effects in a way that users will reasonably notice and that users can reasonably understand, and denying users a meaningful opportunity to decline installation if Hotbar's terms are unacceptable.
The Hotbar initial banner ad (first screenshot at right) mentions only "free emoticon icons," without any mention of a toolbar, advertisements, or other unwanted software.
If a user clicks the Hotbar banner ad, the user receives the second screenshot at right, including an ActiveX "Security Warning" that mentions "Hotbar.com" -- again mentioning no advertisements or even a toolbar (except to the extent that "bar" in the proper noun "Hotbar" might be taken to indicate presence of a toolbar). Combining these failures to disclose with Hotbar's initial child-targeted "emoticon icon" offer, users have no substantial reason to fear that Hotbar will bombard them with unwanted advertising.
Meanwhile, Hotbar simultaneously presents users with apparent endorsements of dubious value: First, Hotbar notes that its "publisher authenticity" has been verified by VeriSign. (See analysis of VeriSign's role in these ActiveX installations.) In addition, Hotbar claims to be a "Microsoft Certified Partner" -- even though such certification offers no substantial verification of the quality of Hotbar's products. (Analysis and screenshots.)
If a user clicks Yes within the ActiveX warning, with or without first reading the Hotbar license, Hotbar proceeds to show the choice screen shown in the third image at right. This screen does prominently mention advertising. But it offers only two choices: The "free ad-supported version" of Hotbar, or a paid version. No cancel button is shown. Note also the absence of an X in the upper-right corner of the installer, and even right-clicking on the taskbar entry does not work (does not yield a menu with a Close button). Users wishing to cancel the installation would have to know to press Alt-F4 or Control-Alt-Delete, or else turn off their PCs altogether. Users unaware of these options will reasonably conclude that their only options are a paid version (undesirable for its cost) or an "ad-supported" version. Without any statement of the specific kinds of ads at issue -- their placement, frequency, or intrusiveness -- users may choose the ad-supported option without understanding its true effects.
Via this installation sequence, Hotbar has failed to reasonably disclose the core effect that typical users most urgently want to know about: That Hotbar will show ads, including the pop-up ads that users are known to find so objectionable. This failure to disclose is entirely avoidable; Hotbar has numerous straightforward opportunities to improve its disclosures and avoid the problems flagged above. For example, Hotbar need not advertise on sites primarily serving kids. Hotbar could include text within its ads that specifically mentions that its software is not for kids. Hotbar could include text within its ads prominently mentioning that its software will show pop-up ads, toolbar ads, and more. Hotbar could include an advertisement disclosure in its ActiveX warning. Hotbar could include a prominent section within its license agreement that, in plain language under an appropriate heading, clearly describes all ads to be shown. In Hotbar's subsequent ad-supported/paid choice screen, Hotbar could include a disclosure of the specific kinds of ads associated with the ad-supported version. Finally, Hotbar could include a Cancel button in that choice screen. Hotbar's failure to take any of these steps tends to indicate a desire to maximize installation rates, rather than to give users accurate and complete information about Hotbar before it becomes installed.
Hotbar's Advertising Methods
Hotbar's advertising is exceptionally pervasive, spreading throughout users' computer. Whereas programs like Claria "only" show users pop-up ads, Hotbar combines pop-up ads with other forms of advertising, including ads within web browser toolbars, automatically-opening sidebars, ads in ordinary Windows Explorer screens (e.g. My Computer), and desktop icons.
See screenshots of Hotbar advertisement types.
Some of these advertising methods also entail tracking what web sites users visit. Using my network monitor, I have confirmed that Hotbar sends its web servers information about the specific sites users visit, as well as cookies and ID numbers that uniquely identify a given user's computer.
Last Updated: May 16, 2005 - Sign up for notification of major updates and related work.