Does Jeeves Ask for Permission?

I continue my misleading installation series with a look at installation practices of Ask Jeeves. My new Ask Jeeves Toolbar Installs via Banner Ads at Kids Sites shows a misleading banner ad particularly likely to target kids. When users click on this banner, AJ neither shows nor references any license agreement. And AJ uses euphemisms like “accessible directly from your browser” rather than explicitly admitting that it will install a web browser toolbar.

But that’s not the worst of AJ’s practices. Over the past six months, I’ve captured a series of videos showing Ask Jeeves’ MyWay and MySearch software installed through security holes — without notice, disclosure, or consent. For example, in a video I made on March 12, I received more than a dozen different programs including the Ask Jeeves MySearch toolbar — without me ever requesting anything, and without me ever clicking “Yes” or “Accept” in any dialog box. Watch the video and see for yourself. Warning: The video is 16+ minutes long. Security exploit occurs at 6:00, and Ask Jeeves MySearch software is first seen at 15:50. In this same testing, I also received installation of 180solutions, multiple programs from eXact Advertising, the IBIS WebSearch toolbar, PeopleOnPage, ShopAtHomeSelect, SurfSideKick, WindUpdates, and many more. The underlying network transmissions show that the security exploit at issue was syndicated through the ad network — Mamma Media, publicly-traded on Nasdaq Small Cap.

I have other videos available upon request, including nonconsensual AJ installations dating back to November 2004. See also my November 2004 exploit video.

I’m surprised that Ask Jeeves allows these nonconsensual installations. Ask Jeeves is a publicly-traded company with a 10-digit valuation (slated to be acquired by InterActiveCorp for $1.85 billion). If Ask Jeeves staff made a serious effort to screen and supervise their distribution partners, they could prevent this kind of mess.

The biggest news last week was a lawsuit filed by the New York Attorney General’s office against Intermix Media, whose KeenValue, IncrediFind, and other programs show popup ads, add extra browser toolbars, and intercept error messages. These practices are objectionable in and of themselves, but the complaint focuses on the programs’ misleading installations. Sometimes the programs install with no notice at all, the complaint says, and sometimes only with hidden or misleading disclosures users are unlikely to notice or understand.

I have the sense that this suit is the first of many. There are certainly plenty of similar offenders, even big companies with major venture capital funding. I have often written about software from 180solutions, Direct Revenue, and eXact Advertising installing through security holes, practices I’ve continued to observe (including in the video linked above). And Claria’s tricky installations share many of the deceptive characteristics the AG attributes to Intermix, like hiding key terms in “lengthy, legalistic license agreements” and using “vague, incomplete” disclosure text. (See NYAG complaint (PDF), paragraph 9.) So I doubt the NY AG’s office would approve of the Ask Jeeves practices I’m documenting today, nor the other misleading tactics on my spyware installation methods index.