Red Light States: Who Buys Online Adult Entertainment?

Edelman, Benjamin. “Red Light States: Who Buys Online Adult Entertainment?” Journal of Economic Perspectives 23, no. 1 (Winter 2009): 209-220.

This paper studies the adult online entertainment industry, particularly the consumption side of the market. In particular, it focuses on the demographics and consumption patterns of those who subscribe to adult entertainment websites. On the surface, this business would seem to face a number of obstacles. Regulatory and legal barriers have already been mentioned. In addition, those charging for access to adult entertainment face competition from similar content available without a fee. In the context of adult entertainment, free access offers consumers an extra benefit: online payments tend to create records documenting the fact of a customer’s purchase; consumers of free content may feel more confident that their purchases will remain confidential. More broadly, measured levels of religiosity in America are high. On the other hand, social critics often argue that the rise of Internet pornography is contributing to a coarsening of American culture. Do consumption patterns of online adult entertainment reveal two separate Americas? Or is the consumption of online adult entertainment widespread, regardless of legal barriers, potential for embarrassment, and even religious conviction?

Debunking Zango’s "Content Economy" updated May 29, 2008

Zango often touts its so-called "content economy" — purportedly providing users access to media in exchange for accepting Zango’s popup ads. After four years of debunking Zango’s claims, I’ve come to suspect the worst — and my investigations of Zango’s media offerings confirm that Zango’s media library is nothing to celebrate. This article reports the results of my recent examinations. I show:

  • Widespread copyrighted video content presented without any indication of license from the corresponding rights-holders. Details.
  • Widespread sexually-explicit material, including prominent explicit material nowhere labeled as such. Details.
  • An audio library consisting solely of prank phone calls to celebrities (without the "music" Zango promises). Details.
  • Widespread material users can get elsewhere for free, without any popups or other detriments. Details.
  • Widespread material that content creators never asked to have included in any Zango library. Details.

Widespread copyrighted video content presented without any indication of license from the corresponding rights-holders

Many of the videos in of Zango’s video library are the work of major movie studios, TV networks, and other third parties that own and assert copyright in their respective works. These videos consistently appear without any statement of authorization (e.g. "used with permission") or even the ordinary copyright notice. I therefore conclude that Zango’s site features these videos without authorization from the corresponding rights-holders.

Zango Offers Daily Show with Guest Chris Rock Zango Offers Daily Show w/ Chris Rock

Zango Offers 'Borat' Zango Offers Borat

For many videos in Zango’s library, it is trivially easy to determine the video’s source. For example, text in the corner of Zango’s "Ashley Judd Nude Photoshoot" indicates the video comes from "Norma Jean & Marilyn" (1996, released on DVD by HBO Home Video). The title of Zango’s "Wild Things" suggests the video comes from the 2004 Sony Pictures movie by the same name; watching the video confirms the match. Zango’s "Girls Next Door Nude Compilation" begins with the distinctive Playboy logo. Zango’s "Chris Rock on the Daily Show" reproduces a video clip from Comedy Central’s Daily Show. It’s easy to find scores of other examples plainly labeled as well-known copyrighted works.

Other videos in Zango’s library are harder to identify — at least those without extensive entertainment industry experience. For example, I cannot easily determine the specific movie that included the scenes shown in Zango’s "Paris Hilton Striptease" or "Rachel Hunter in the Bathtub." But the clips leave little doubt that they were filmed professionally and that the respective studios hold copyright in the resulting works. Similarly, I cannot easily determine the specific source of Zango’s "Branding Beat Down." However, every frame of the video bears the distinctive Fox logo — indicating that the video originated with the Fox Broadcasting Company.

As to at least eight of the files in Zango’s library, I have specifically confirmed that Zango’s reproduction occurs without authorization from the underlying rights-holders. (Details below.) As to selected other files, I have sent inquiries to the corresponding rights-holders. I will update this page if I confirm whether Zango has properly licensed the content at issue.

Infringing videos are remarkably prominent in Zango’s video library. For example, as of May 27, Zango’s home page linked to "Borats First Trip To An American Gym" (s.i.c.). This clip was listed as the second most popular video in Zango’s entire content library, and it was placed in the top-center of Zango’s main web page, "above the fold" (within the portion of the page visible without using scroll bars). Yet the title of the video plainly indicates that the video contains the copyrighted work of others. Moreover, the video features the "DIVX Video" logo, indicating that DivX software was used to extract ("rip") the video from a DVD. No authorized reproduction would be provided with a DivX overlay, so the presence of the DivX marker confirms that this video was reproduced without permission from the creators of Borat.

Other online video sites have been the target of major copyright litigation. For example, Viacom last year sued Google, alleging that "YouTube appropriates the value of creative content on a massive scale for YouTube’s benefit without payment or license." In defense, Google points out that YouTube receives videos from independent — potentially granting Google immunity for these infringements due to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act‘s safe harbor for infringements occurring at the direction of users (17 USC 512(c)(1)).

Unlike YouTube, Zango’s video library offers no prominent "upload" function. Some of Zango’s videos arrive through the Revver video-sharing service (discussed below), probably originating with a variety of independent users. But many of the copyrighted videos Zango offers reside on Zango’s servers, not on Revver servers. (For example, all eight of the sexually-explicit videos linked in the first paragraph of the next section are hosted on Zango servers.) Because Zango offers no "upload" function by which ordinary users could have put videos onto Zango’s site, it therefore appears that these videos were provided by Zango or its agents, not by independent users. If so, Zango will not find protection in the DMCA’s safe harbor for infringements caused by users.

Moreover, even if Zango’s videos were provided by independent users, the circumstances of the reproduction seem to render Zango ineligible for the DMCA safe harbor. For one, the safe harbor requires that Zango lack actual knowledge of the infringements. But the infringing videos were obvious and self-evident, not just from their titles and contents, but also from their prevalence in featured results Zango chose to highlight. In addition, the safe harbor requires that Zango not receive a financial benefit directly attributable to the infringements. But Zango used these videos to induce users to download its popup-generating software, a financial benefit that is directly attributable to the infringing videos. (Consider the case of a user who installs Zango in response to solicitation offering a specific copyrighted video clip. Example.) Furthermore, Zango has the right and ability to control the infringement (e.g. by removing the infringing videos). Because Zango’s financial benefit can be directly tracked to a specific infringement, and because Zango has the right and ability to prevent such infringement, Zango seems to fail the test in 17 USC 512(c)(1)(B).

Zango may claim that its videos are fair use. The Copyright Act sets out a four-factor test for determining whether reproduction of a copyrighted work is permissible, despite lack of authorization from the rights-holder. The fair use test calls for considering 1) the purpose and character of the use (e.g. whether commercial or nonprofit), 2) the nature of the copyrighted work, 3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used, and 4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for the work. Factor one is easy: Zango’s use is clearly commercial, which tends to cut against a finding of fair use. Zango might claim that its presentation of excerpts (rather than entire movies) supports a finding of fair use under the third test — but Zango exactly chooses what it views as highlights (e.g. the explicit portions of full-length movies), yielding clips with a greater than usual effect on the potential market for the underlying works. In short, a fair use defense is at best uncertain.

Wide-scale copyright infringement could expose Zango to substantial liability. The Copyright Act provides for statutory damages of "not less than $750" per violation. My examination indicates Zango is reproducing (at least) hundreds of copyrighted videos without any statement of authorization. Furthermore, such videos have surely been downloaded repeatedly — giving rise to potential statutory damages that could easily reach seven digits or more.

Widespread sexually-explicit material, including prominent explicit material nowhere labeled as such

Celebrity Videos Featured by Zango Celebrity Videos Featured by Zango

Prominent Video - Explicit but Unlabeled
Prominent Video – Explicit but Unlabeled

Browse Zango’s video library, and it’s easy to find sexually-explicit video. As shown in the first inset image at right, the bottom-right corner of each Zango "Browse" page gives a list of celebrities — each of them female, each featured in various states of undress. Among other explicit videos of these celebrities, Zango offers "Britney Spears See Thru", "Britney Spears Black Dress Upskirt", "Paris Hilton Striptease", "Rachel Hunter in the Bathtub", "Jessica Alba’s Chest and You", "Jessica Simpson Nipple Slip", "Anna Kournikova Panties Oops", and "Angelina Jolie Sex Scene."

The titles and descriptions of many of Zango’s videos suggest that their subjects were unwilling participants. See e.g. "nipple slip" and "upskirt" above, as well as additional videos like Zango’s "Arab wife’s sexy dance secretly taped" and Zango’s "Girlfriend Finds Hidden Camera."

Through its placement and labeling of sexually-explicit videos, Zango creates a substantial risk that users will receive explicit materials they did not seek. For example, on May 24, I clicked "Browse" to flip through Zango’s content library. Using Zango’s default sort, the third video was entitled "the pool" with comment "havin fun in the pool" (s.i.c.). (Screenshot of the link from within Zango’s video library.) This title and comment give no indication that the resulting material is explicit. But clicking the "Watch" button immediately yields a large video showing two male adults swimming nude, then exiting the pool (entirely disrobed). As best I can tell, Zango did nothing to alert users to this explicit material, nor does Zango prevent (or even discourage) children from viewing such material.

Zango’s May 24 "the pool" video was not a mere anomaly. The same video remained linked in the same way in my tests on May 25 and 26, and on portions of May 27.

In litigation documents, Zango last week claimed that it never distributes explicit material to those do not want it. In particular, Zango argues: "Zango never sends unwanted links to pornography web sites" and "Zango only directs adult-oriented advertisements to a user after that user, by his own behavior, has demonstrated interest in such content." I disagree. The preceding paragraphs offer a counterexample — Zango prominently providing a link to sexually-explicit materials, and provideing that links to users who never demonstrated interest in any such content. Zango may claim that these links tout videos — not a "web site" as in the first quoted sentence. Alternatively, Zango may claim that the links are not "advertisements" — hence beyond a strict reading of the second quoted sentence. But the underlying contradiction remains: Zango says it doesn’t provide pornography except when users seek it; yet in fact Zango does sometimes deliver explicit materials unrequested.

That Zango funds and distributes sexually-explicit materials is well-known. See e.g. the Sunbelt Blog’s February 2008 conclusion that "80% of [Zango’s] business comes from Seekmo, the porn side of its business." See also Sunbelt’s off-hand November 2006 remark that "hardcore porno videos [are] funded through Zango Seekmo installs."

But the scope of explicit materials within Zango’s video library is quite striking. Consider the first page of Zango’s library listings for Angeline Jolie. Beyond the "sex scene" video linked above, the listings also include "Angelina Jolie Taking a Bath", "Angelina Jolie Under the Sheets", "Angelina Jolie in Bra & Panties", "A fairly long nude scene staring Angelina Jolie" (s.i.c.), "Angeline Jolie Getting It On", "Angelina Jolie Nip Slip", "Angelina Jolie Hardcore", and "Angelina Jolie Dominatrix", and "Angelina Jolie Hot On The Runway." That’s ten explicit results out of twenty links — suggesting that explicit materials are remarkably widespread on Zango’s site.

The initial version of this article also flagged Zango’s "Nice But" (s.i.c.), a video that on May 27 occupied the fourth-most prominent position in Zango’s "Browse" listings. The thumbnail image of this video appeared to feature a full-screen display of a man’s naked buttocks, filling the entire screen. In a follow-up, Zango points out that in fact, the video shows an extreme close-up zoom of of two hands. So this image and video are not actually explicit. Yet a viewer merely flipping through Zango’s listings would nonetheless see an image that is, by all indications, explicit. The title "but" (s.i.c.) and the keyword "naked," both adjacent to the thumbnail, reinforce the user’s perception of having seen an unrequested explicit image. Although the image is not actually explicit, the image’s content, placement, and labeling make it likely to leave users with the same feeling as an unrequested image that is actually sexually explicit: In both instances, a viewer who merely sees the image and does not watch the video will think he has seen an unwanted explicit image. In my view, Zango errs in mocking this harm. To the users who Zango tricks, the harm is perfectly real.

Zango’s audio library consists solely of prank phone calls to celebrities

Zango Offers Prank Phone Call Recordings Zango Offers Prank Phone Call Recordings

Zango’s content library offers three types of media: Videos, screensavers, and audio. Despite Zango’s much-touted "content economy," Zango offers just eight audio clips. And although Zango’s "About Zango" description promises to provide free access to "music," in fact all eight of these audio files are recordings from talk radio — just voices, with no music at all.

All eight of Zango’s audio recordings share a common theme: Prank phone calls to celebrities. In each, a caller pretends to be someone famous (e.g. the Prime Minister of Canada), and calls a celebrity (e.g. Bill Gates) under the guise of a bona fide discussion. The caller proceeds to berate the celebrity (e.g. by criticizing the features and reliability of Windows).

A comment in several of the videos reveals the source of the recordings: The Masked Avengers, which Wikipedia describes as "a Canadian radio duo … of disk jockeys and comedians Sebastien Trudel and Marc-Antoine Audette, known for making prank calls to famous persons by pretending to be government officials or officers in charitable organizations." I wrote to Mr. Trudel, who confirmed to me that he has not granted Zango any license to use or reproduce these clips.

After placing these recordings in its content library, Zango further syndicates the materials onto Zango’s partner sites. For example, (screenshot) features all eight recordings, but requires users to install Zango before listening. Whois reports that Celebsprankd comes from the Vancouver, B.C. advertising firm Neverblue Media — a conclusion confirmed by the presence of the web server at the same IP address. Neverblue describes itself as a "leading … online marketing company" offering "premier" advertising and "solid business leads" — claims arguably inconsistent with distributing and profiting from prank phone calls, not to mention distributing Zango. (But these recordings aren’t Neverblue’s only tie to Zango. This month alone, my Automatic Spyware Tester found eleven incidents of Neverblue affiliates buying popup traffic from Zango. I’ve also found dozens more incidents as to Neverblue affiliates buying traffic from other spyware.)

What of Zango’s distribution of these prank call recordings? With so few clips yet such prominent placement (including five of these eight audio recordings featured on Zango’s home page), senior Zango staff surely know what the files contain. Does Zango support prank phone calls? Wasting celebrities’ time under false pretenses? Recording phone calls without permission, even in states that specifically require such permission? It’s hard to reconcile these practices with Zango’s supposed reforms.

Widespread material users can get elsewhere for free, without any popups or other detriments

Much of Zango’s content is available elsewhere without charge and without installing any software that tracks online behavior or shows popup ads. For example, clicking Zango’s "Browse" tab and retaining defaults, every single video on the first page of results is syndicated from Revver. Users could just as easily get these videos directly from Revver, as receive them from Zango. But if users watched these videos at Revver, Zango’s software would not track their web browsing and searching, and users would not receive Zango’s popup ads.

Zango Falsely Claims that Uninstallation Eliminates Content Access Zango Falsely Tells Its Users:
"Uninstallation … eliminates content access"

Furthermore, Zango makes untrue claims about the necessity of its software. For example, Zango claims that "uninstallation … eliminates content access." It does not. For files hosted at Revver, installation of Zango is not necessary to watch the videos in the first place, and uninstallation does not interfere with watching the videos later. Moreover, even many Zango-hosted files can be accessed without installing Zango, or after uninstalling Zango. For example, Zango’s "Chris Rock on the Daily Show" is actually just a standard Windows Media Video (WMV) distributed from the following URL: . Zango’s "Borats First Trip To An American Gym" (s.i.c.) is . Similarly, Zango’s "Bill Gates Gets Pranked" is a WMA hosted at . Any user who knows these URLs can easily receive the corresponding files — without ever installing Zango, or after uninstalling Zango. Zango ought not claim otherwise.

Presenting material that content creators never asked to have included in any Zango library

By syndicating videos from Revver, Zango causes its video library to feature materials that content creators never asked to have associated with Zango in any way.

Zango’s syndication of Revver videos has prompted numerous complaints content creators who post videos to Revver. For example, Chris Pirillo asked why his videos are appearing on Zango. ("I don’t remember giving Zango permission to push crapware on my behalf.") Revver forum user JPPI pointed out the irony of Zango claiming his videos were "FREE, thanks to Zango" when in fact the videos were free all along (even before Zango syndicated them). Revver forum user David complained that it is "kinda deceptive" (s.i.c.) "to make it sound like Zango was the one who made the video free."

In response, Revver Vice President Asi Behar agreed to ask Zango to remove any Revver videos that Revver authors specifically so designate. But such removals do nothing to cure the deception of Zango requiring that users install its software before watching materials widely available elsewhere for free. Furthermore, such removals do nothing to protect Revver content creators who are unaware of Revver’s relationship with Zango. The word "Zango" appears nowhere on Revver’s official web site (as distinguished from Revver’s forums and some Revver-hosted videos). Thus, a Revver content creator has no easy way to learn about Revver’s relationship with Zango — not to mention learn of the option to request exclusion from Zango.

Zango’s syndication of Revver videos risks tainting the good name of Revver content creators. Consider a user who searches for a Revver video and finds that video hosted at Zango (just as Chris Pirillo did last year). The user may mistakenly conclude that installing Zango is in fact necessary to watch the video. If so, the user is likely to end up with a negative view of the underlying content creator — mistakenly concluding that, e.g., Chris Pirillo has partnered with Zango or endorses Zango’s activities. Revver forum complaints indicate that numerous Revver users share this concern. Yet Revver continues to syndicate videos to Zango without first checking with content creators.

Zango’s problems in context

Last week, Zango was one of four finalists for the Software & Information Industry Association’s CODiE Best Video Content Aggregation Service. In my view, that award is misguided: Far from deserving praise, Zango should be criticized and shunned for reproducing others’ copyrighted work without any apparent license to do so, showing sexually-explicit material unrequested, and offering users a lousy value by bundling extra ads with content users could get elsewhere for free.

Meanwhile, Zango continues litigation with Kaspersky. Recall: Kaspersky blocked Zango’s software from installing; Zango sued; Kaspersky successfully defended on the grounds that the Communications Decency Act, 47 USC 230, immunizes Kaspersky’s behavior because Kaspersky is an "interactive computer service provider" blocking material that, in its subjective opinion, is "objectionable." In Zango’s appeal, Zango claims its software is not "otherwise objectionable" (brief pages 12-15; PDF pages 17-20). If it’s not objectionable to show explicit material unrequested — not to mention to infringe copyrights on a massive scale, and to insert extra ads around material available elsewhere without such ads – then I don’t know what is.

Finally, I’m often asked whether Zango continues the behaviors I previously reported. Installing through sneaky fake-user-interface pop-up ads that mimic the appearance of official Windows dialog boxes (as I reported last summer)? Yes. I made a fresh video showing such installations just last week.Defrauding advertisers through popups that cover merchants’ sites with their own affiliate offers(as I reported last spring, in September 2005, in summer 2004, and otherwise)? Definitely. This month alone, I reported six Zango incidents to just one of my advertiser clients — not to mention scores of other incidents targeting other web sites and advertisers. Zango repeatedly claims its problems are all in the past, but my hands-on testing continues to indicate otherwise.

Spyware Showing Unrequested Sexually-Explicit Images

Are pop-up ads anything more than an annoyance? For advertisers they can certainly be a bad deal — particularly when spyware-delivered pop-ups cheat advertisers through PPC click fraud, PPC syndication fraud, affiliate fraud, banner farms, or other improper ways of getting paid. For users, pop-ups in overwhelming quantities may cause substantial harm — especially because pop-up-delivering spyware reduces computer speed and reliability, and because spyware transmits sensitive user information to remote servers.

But spyware-delivered pop-ups can do more than annoy. They can also offend. Consider spyware that shows sexually-explicit (most would say, pornographic) pop-ups. When such ads appear unrequested, they’re likely to be shown to users who don’t want to see sexually-explicit material. It’s a troubling practice — but all too common even among "adware" vendors that claim to have reformed. Meanwhile, some old tricks remain — like pop-ups with their "X" buttons off-screen, making the ads particularly hard to close.

ZenoTecnico and AlmondNet Showing AdultFriendFinder

The ZenoTecnico ad, edited to cover sexually-explicit areas. The ZenoTecnico ad, edited to cover sexually-explicit areas.

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   AlmondNet / ProMarket    
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The money trail for this ad.

Let’s start with a simple example. On a test PC, I browsed the site. That’s definitely a dating site — but it’s not sexually explicit. Many users browse online dating service without wanting to see online porn.

In testing in May 2006, ZenoTecnico served me the pop-up shown at right (modified to cover the bare breasts exposed in the original). ZenoTecnico is notorious spyware which I have seen installed through a variety of misleading bundles and security exploits. Zeno’s web site claims an address in Panama, but I believe this address is a sham. I’m working on identifying their true location.

Packet log analysis shows that traffic flowed in the way shown in the diagram at right: From ZenoTecnico to ProMarket (part of New York-based AlmondNet) to AdultFriendFinder. See also the associated packet log.

Set against the more complex examples that follow, this Zeno-ProMarket-AdultFriendFinder is particularly notable: These three parties alone decided to show this ad, in this way, under these circumstances and with this targeting (or lack thereof), without influence by any other spyware installed on my test PC, and with a reasonably direct relationship between advertiser and spyware vendor, as shown at right. They may blame each other. But as best I can tell, they have no one but each other to blame.

Direct Revenue Showing MorpheusOfPorn

The Direct Revenue ad, edited to cover sexually-explicit areas. The Direct Revenue ad, edited to cover explicit areas.

money viewers
Direct Revenue

The money trail for this ad.

It’s well-known that most spyware-infected computers contain multiple spyware programs. When multiple spyware programs interact, they are particularly likely to show sexually-explicit images without a user requesting any such materials.

The screenshot at right presents a pop-up shown to me on a massively infected test PC. The pop-up bears Direct Revenue’s branding ("The Best Offers"), and packet log analysis confirms that the ad came through the Direct Revenue pop-up system.

What caused Direct Revenue to show this ad? Mere seconds earlier, unidentified spyware on my test PC had sent traffic to ad network YieldManager, which had in turn redirected me to AdultFriendFinder. Direct Revenue saw that traffic to AdultFriendFinder and took that as a trigger to display the explicit pop-up shown at right. See the associated packet log (showing the preceding YieldManager traffic), as well as a video of the sequence (edited to cover sexually-explicit areas).

Observing my computer’s traffic to, Direct Revenue’s advertising software assumed I was seeking sexually-explicit material. But where the AdultFriendFinder site itself appears unrequested, as in my example, Direct Revenue’s assumption is badly in error. To the contrary, sexually-explicit content is unlikely to be desired or appropriate when other spyware has decided to show a user AdultFriendFinder.

Even AdultFriendFinder recognized that it might not be appropriate to show a sexually-explicit image to users reaching its site in the manner captured in my testing. See a screenshot (from video at 2:46) of the landing page AdultFriendFinder showed me. As delivered to my test PC (via the undetermined spyware), AdultFriendFinder’s site included no visible sexually-explicit images. Instead, the page was a mere doorway — with a disclosure ("Warning! You are about to view…") along with separate links for users above 18 (to enter) and below age 18 (to go elsewhere).

It is particularly notable for Direct Revenue to show unrequested sexually-explicit materials because Direct Revenue has specifically promised not to do so. In the proposed settlement of a consumer class action lawsuit against Direct Revenue, provision (m) specifically requires that Direct Revenue’s software "will not display adult content ads unless the user is viewing adult websites." In this example, I did not request any adult web site. Neither did I actually view any adult material (prior to the material shown by Direct Revenue): The AdultFriendFinder page at issue cannot be categorized as "adult," because it includes no sexually-explicit images. In short, on these facts, I see a strong argument that Direct Revenue violated its duties under its settlement agreement.

Deskwizz/SearchingBooth, Z-Quest, YieldManager and Zedo Showing Vitalix

The SearchingBooth ad, edited to cover sexually-explicit areas. The SearchingBooth ad, edited to cover explicit areas.

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Deskwizz / SearchingBooth

The money trail for this ad.

Deskwizz/SearchingBooth shows a variety of intrusive advertisements, largely untargeted. Many of its ads are injected into others’ sites (without those sites’ consent), as in this screenshot showing a Vonage ad injected into the Vistaprint site. The web site gives an address in Quebec. I have repeatedly observed Deskwizz/SearchingBooth installed through exploits and in large bundles (e.g. the Dollarrevenue bundle) without meaningful user consent.

The screenshot at right shows an ad served to me on a PC with SearchingBooth installed. The ad shows a total of four nude individuals, and I have edited the ad to cover sexually-explicit areas.

Packet log analysis indicates that traffic flowed in the following way: First, SearchingBooth spyware sent traffic to its controlling server, seeking an ad to be displayed. replied with a URL to a (a Canadian company whose site describes meta-search services as well as a toolbar). Z-quest sent me on to YieldManager. YieldManager in turn sent me to Zedo (a San Francisco ad server that features Internet luminary Esther Dyson on its advisory board). Finally, Zedo opened a new window of Vitalix, which showed the sexually-explicit content at issue. These relationships are set out in the diagram at right, in the URL list below, and in the full packet log.…;c=40;s=17;d=15;w=1;h=1;x=3869;g=172,0;c=377000040,37……

The longer chain of relationships in this example makes it more difficult to determine who is responsible for the unrequested display of sexually-explicit content. One might reasonably blame Deskwizz/SearchingBooth, whose nonconsensually-installed spyware was the root cause of any ad being shown at all. But also responsible is Zedo, which had the last clear chance to prevent the display of this ad, and which showed these sexually-explicit images without obtaining a correct and reliable verification that such a display was appropriate. Meanwhile, ad placement system YieldManager was squarely in the middle of the chain, and YM’s detailed Media Guard blog suggests they’ve thought at length about the special problems of sexually-explicit ads. Yet they too failed to prevent this sexually-explicit ad from appearing unrequested.

Typical users are likely to find this sexually-explicit ad particularly intrusive and particularly hard to remove because the ad’s "X" button appears off-screen. Notice the absence of a title bar, "X" button, or minimize button in the screenshot at right. Sophisticated users may know they can press Alt-F4 to close the ad. But novices don’t. Reviewing the packet log, it appears that Zedo is responsible for this partially-off-screen window placement: The ad is placed in the specified location by JavaScript code served from the Zedo server, which instructs as follows:

zzWindow.moveTo(Math.ceil((screen.availWidth – 380) / 2), Math.ceil((screen.availHeight – 680) / 2));

This code moves the ad window to a vertical location given by the screen’s available height (in pixels) minus 680 (the intended height of the ad at issue), divided by two. If the user’s screen is more than 680 pixels tall, this code has the effect of centering the window vertically on the user’s screen. But if the user’s screen is less than 680 pixels tall, e.g. a 800×600 pixel screen common on many older laptops and some older desktops, then this code predictably and inevitably has the effect of placing the "X" button off-screen. Zedo and its advertiser should have checked the user’s actual screen-height (e.g. via the code "if screen.availHeight>680"), to make sure they were not positioning the pop-up with its "X" off-screen.

Look2me/Ad-w-a-r-e, FirstAdSolution, YieldManager, Falk AG/DoubleClick, eXact Advertising, MyGeek Showing Naughtyplay

The SearchingBooth ad, edited to cover sexually-explicit areas. The SearchingBooth ad, edited to cover explicit areas.

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Instant Navigation / eXact Advertising
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Falk AG / DoubleClick
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FirstAdSolution / Oridian
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Look2me / Ad-w-a-r-e / Intern-etadvertising

The money trail for this ad.

From Minnesota-based NicTech Networks, Look2me/Ad-w-a-r-e spyware is widely installed through security exploits and misleading bundles. Its revenue sources are equally broad. I’ve seen Look2me/Ad-w-a-r-e getting paid by performing click fraud against Yahoo advertisers, and by seizing unearned commission through merchants’ affiliate programs. But Look2me/Ad-w-a-r-e also shows ordinary banner ads and pop-up ads, including untargeted run-of-network ads through sites such as its banner loading page (among many others).

The screenshot at right shows an ad served to me on a PC with Look2me/Ad-w-a-r-e installed. The ad is exceptionally explicit: Its large images show four women completely nude and one partially disrobed, in addition to two protruding male members from men not otherwise pictured. Smaller images show at least sixteen women and ten male members (although not a single male face). In total, the ad pictures at least thirty-three individuals in an overwhelming array of sexual positions. The ad arrived on my screen as a full-screen pop-up, but with its upper-right "X" button entirely off-screen, just as shown in the screenshot and thumbnail.

Packet log analysis indicates that traffic flowed in the following way: First, Look2me sought an ad from its controlling server, Ad-w-a-r-e specified an ad at, a standard Look2me loading page which shows untargeted (run-of-network) ads. Intern-etadvertising specified that the ad was to come from (Oridian Online Media Solutions of Israel), which in turn sent me to YieldManager, which specified that the ad was actually at Falk AG (recently acquired by DoubleClick) in turn sent me on to (whose Contact Us page indicates that it is part of, recently acquired by eXact Advertising). Instantnavigation sent me to the server (eXact Advertising), which redirected me to MyGeek, which finally passed me to Naughtyplay, the explicit web site shown in the pop-up.

These relationships are set out in the diagram at right, in the URL list below, and in the full packet log.……………

By all indications, the server performed click fraud against MyGeek. The structure and obfuscation of the HTML on that server indicate a special desire to avoid being caught, as does eXact’s unilateral insertion of purported search keywords ("heather hunter") not specified earlier in the traffic. I have observed nearby server addresses with the same URL syntax serving in a click fraud chain against Yahoo Overture. Furthermore, I understand that the server runs a pay-per-click advertising system, distinct from MyGeek’s separate "cost per view" system for which advertisers may be charged without a click occurring. Traffic to and through that server, without a bona fide user click, seems to constitute click fraud.

This chain of relationships is notable for its extreme length — five intermediaries between spyware vendor and advertiser. These many relationships provide numerous opportunities for ad context to be lost — for ad networks to fail to tell each other that a sexually-explicit ad is not appropriate here.

Policy Recommendations; The Problem In Context

The four examples shown above are just a tiny portion of the problem of sexually-explicit images shown to users who didn’t request such materials. I have numerous additional examples on file. In one example on file, spyware on my test PC identifies the name of a fashion designer on a well-known retailer’s site, then uses that word as a trigger for an ad, ultimately showing an ad that is sexually-explicit. In another example, spyware on my test PC observes me browsing the children’s section of an online shoe store, a page mentioning "girls" in its title. The spyware then serves me a full-screen sexually-explicit pop-up. Notably, the pop-up was obtained via click fraud against a major pay-per-click search engine.

In my view, unrequested displays of sexually-explicit content largely arise out of the unaccountability pervasive in the spyware space. In each of the examples above, I anticipate that the parties involved will blame each other. Ad networks may claim that other ad networks told them (through tags, attributes, or contracts) that traffic was suitable for sexually-explicit ad display. Spyware vendors will blame other spyware for having suggested that users wanted such content. In all likelihood, no party will take responsibility for the bad outcomes that resulted.

In other contexts, online service providers face serious penalties for showing unrequested sexually-explicit images. Section 521 of the PROTECT Act creates criminal liability (up to two years imprisonment) for "us[ing] a misleading domain name … with the intent to deceive a person into viewing material constituting obscenity", and additional liability for deceiving minors into viewing material that is harmful to minors. This law responded to the problem of typosquatters and other bulk domain registrants showing adult materials — such that users would stumble onto sexually-explicit images unrequested. But no such law protects users from unrequested pornography shown by spyware.

Even without legislative intervention, well-intentioned ad networks have tools at their disposal to prevent the unrequested display of sexually-explicit materials. One natural approach is to make all ads and landing pages non-explicit. Then a mistaken ad display does not show sexually-explicit materials (although it might still link to such materials). Ad networks could also redouble their supervision of their partners — checking the specific circumstances in which explicit ads may be shown, and confirming that these circumstances leave no doubt that a user actually wanted to receive explicit content. Tough ad networks could create financial incentives that penalize their partners for any errors uncovered — warnings, fines, and contract termination. Finally, ad networks could improve their public statements of applicable policies and procedures, making it easier for consumers to report unwanted images — including helping consumers learn where and how to submit such reports. Ad networks that find these steps too difficult or too costly could simply leave the business of serving or placing sexually-explicit advertisements.

Semi-explicit sites raise particular problems for spyware targeting. In my Direct Revenue example (above) and in various other examples I have on file, AdultFriendFinder buys spyware-delivered traffic and shows ads that, while suggestive, are not sexually-explicit. But then other spyware observes this AdultFriendFinder traffic, using this traffic as a catalyst to show ads that are explicit. Spyware vendors need to recognize that while some AdultFriendFinder ads are explicit (e.g. my first example above), others are not. With AdultFriendFinder’s mix of ads, and with typical spyware-infected PCs running multiple spyware programs, a visit to AdultFriendFinder cannot be interpreted as a proper trigger to show sexually-explicit images. Same for any other sites that buy run-of-network (or other spyware-delivered) advertising, or that otherwise straddle the border between explicit and non-explicit materials.

Yesterday the Direct Marketing Association released best practices for online advertising networks and affiliate marketing.The DMA calls for obtaining assurances of compliance with applicable law, performing due diligence on prospective partners, and monitoring compliance. It’s easy to criticize these approaches as obvious or overdue. But if the ad networks above were using the DMA’s recommended methods, these problems would be substantially less widespread.Meanwhile, I continue to think the DMA’s final recommendation — "develop a system to routinely monitor your ad placements" — remains essential yet under-appreciated. Tough enforcement and real penalties could stop thesepractices: Spyware purveyorswouldn’t run these (or any other) ads if they weren’t getting paid for it.

Benjamin Edelman v. N2H2, Inc.

I sought to research and document sites categorized and restricted by Internet blocking program N2H2. N2H2’s block site list is protected by technical measures including an encryption system, but I sought to write software that would nonetheless allow me to access, analyze, and report its contents. However, I feared that conducting this work might expose me to liability for violation of the N2H2 License, of the Copyright Act of 1976, and of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, as well as for misappropriation of N2H2’s trade secrets. With representation by the ACLU, I therefore sought from federal court a declaratory judgement that I could conduct this research and publication without fear of liability.

Case details including litigation documents

Empirical Analysis of Google SafeSearch

Google offers interested users a version of its search engine restricted by a service it calls SafeSearch, intended to omit references to sites with “pornography and explicit sexual content.” However, testing indicates that SafeSearch blocks at least tens of thousands of web pages without any sexually-explicit content, whether graphical or textual. Blocked results include sites operated by educational institutions, non-profits, news media, and national and local governments. Among searches on sensitive topics such as reproductive health, SafeSearch blocks results in a way that seems essentially random; it is difficult to construct a rational non-arbitrary basis for which pages are allowed and which are omitted. Full article.

Large-Scale Registration of Domains with Typographical Errors

Large-Scale Registration of Domains with Typographical Errors. (January 2003)

The author reports more than eight thousand domains that consist of minor variations on the addresses of well-known web sites, reflecting typographical errors often made by Internet users manually typing these addresses into their web browsers. Although the majority of these domain names are variations of sites frequently used by children, and although their domain names do not suggest the presence of sexually-explicit content, more than 90% offer extensive sexually-explicit content. In addition, these domains are presented in a way that temporarily disables a browser’s Back and Exit commands, preventing users from exiting easily. Most or all of the domains are registered to an individual previously enjoined by the FTC from operating domains that are typographic variations on famous names, and these domains remain operational subsequent to an injunction ordering their suspension.


Domains Reregistered for Distribution of Unrelated Content: A Case Study of “Tina’s Free Live Webcam”

Domains Reregistered for Distribution of Unrelated Content: A Case Study of “Tina’s Free Live Webcam”. (March – April 2002.)

In recent years, many Internet users have become aware that when domain names expire (after their original registrants forget, fail, or otherwise decline to renew them), the domain names may be reregistered by others. This feature of the management of the domain name system might be thought to be desirable since it allows and facilitates a turnover of names from those uninterested in using them to those who in fact do seek to put them to active use. But recent experience shows that this structure also allows domains to be renewed by firms who do not seem to seek to use the domains to offer original content but rather seem to hope to profit from the prior promotional works of others.

In particular, such firms often offer pornographic or sexually-explicit images, advertising, or links or redirects to other commercial sites. The apparent expectation of such firms is that at least some users will request the web pages previously (before domain expiration) hosting other content; any such users will instead be shown this new content, likely creating profits for the firms that reregistered the expired domain names.

In this article, I document several thousand domains reregistered by one particular firm — many domain names that all redirect users to one particular web page displaying sexually explicit images. While this research is by no means exhaustive — other firms are likely conducting similar registration practices, and still others make numerous registrations and reregistrations that no doubt differ in various ways — a review of these specific registrations as well as their general characteristics may be helpful in understanding the behavior at issue.