Aspira Networks Charging Merchants for Traffic That’s Otherwise Free

Affiliate marketing is supposed to be low-risk for merchants: in theory, merchants only pay affiliates when a user makes a purchase. Specifically, an affiliate should earn a commission only if 1) the user browses the affiliate’s site, 2) the user clicks the affiliate’s specially-coded link to the merchant, and 3) the user makes a purchase from the merchant. But rogue affiliates find ways to bypass these requirements — be it cookie-stuffing, adware popups, typosquatting, or network-based traffic interception. In this piece, I show Delaware-based Aspira Networks approach: configuring its partners’ networks so that if a user makes a purchase from a targeted merchant’s site, the merchant has to pay Aspira an affiliate commission — even though Aspira did nothing to cause or encourage the user’s purchase.

The method is straightforward. Aspira partners with network operators to monitor and reroute users’ browsing. If a user requests a targeted merchant, Aspira intercedes — redirecting the user to an “finder” page, through an affiliate click link, then back to the merchant. The affiliate redirect causes merchants to conclude, mistakenly, that Aspira caused users’ subsequent purchases.

See examples of Aspira’s redirects in action, targeting the following merchants:
   GoDaddy – video, packet log
   Home Depot – video, packet log
   Travelocity – video, packet log

In testing, I found that Aspira targets roughly a quarter of large mainstream US affiliate merchants. I found Aspira systematically using CJ publisher account 3965551. In testing, I did not find Aspira currently targeting merchants using LinkShare, though an early Aspira investor pitch (dated August 2009 in metadata) indicates that Aspira has worked with LinkShare as well as Google Affiliate Network.

Merchants have no reason to pay for Aspira’s traffic. Though affiliate network reports may attribute sales to Aspira, Aspira does not actuallycause additional or incremental purchases. Rather, these are purchases that merchants would have received anyway. Aspira tells prospective merchants that they will “sell more products” by working with Aspira, but I see no evidence to support that claim. Quite the contrary, in fact; in my testing, Aspira did not genuinely promote any merchants. Aspira claimed commission only after a user had already reached a merchant’s site.

Notably, Aspira’s networks violate longstanding and broadly-applicable network policies. For example, the Commission Junction Publisher Service Agreement indicates that commission is only due for “clicks through links” (provision 3.a). Aspira’s automatic redirects entail no genuine user “click” on any link; there’s an automatic redirect but not an actual click. Other CJ rules disallow “transactions … not in good faith” including all manner of automatic and nonincremental leads (provision 1.d.ii). Here too, Aspira falls short.

In August 2011, Zhang et al. uncovered Paxfire similarly redirecting users through affiliate links. Under litigation pressure and media scrutiny, Paxfire found itself banned from Commission Junction, LinkShare, and Google Affiliate Network. I suggest the same resolution for Aspira.

Aspira’s site focuses on public installations (coffee-shops and the like) where, in principle, one might imagine that network access was made available by payments from Aspira. But I found Aspira redirecting traffic from an ordinary office served by Indiana ISP Smithville Communications. So far as I know, Smithville never notified its customers that it would be monitoring their communications, redirecting them through affiliate links, or sharing their browsing activity with Aspira. (Smithville’s privacy policy makes no mention of Aspira or sending users’ browsing to third parties.) Nor did Smithville offer customers a discount for allowing Smithville and Aspira to monitor and redirect their browsing. Other users report (and criticize) similar redirects when using standard residential and commercial ISPs Access Media 3, Arvig, and OnShore Networks.

Aspira’s site gives little detail about its revenue from redirecting users through affiliate links. Partner Cash4trafik says “typical operators have realized historically …. about $1.00 – $10.00 per subscriber per year.” Notice that revenue must be shared among affiliate networks, Aspira, Cash4traffik, and ISPs — so if an ISP gets $5, the others might take another $15 along the way. Indeed, early Aspira financial projections — posted to the web and readily found by web search — indicate that Aspira planned to retain a 40% to 67% share of affiliate commissions.

Meanwhile, Aspira’s financial projections show a particularly brazen attempt to claim payments despite minimal effort. As of 2010, Aspira projected 2013 revenue climbing to $63 million with expense reportedly to stay below $7 million. Business plans are often overly optimistic, but an 89% profit margin is difficult to reconcile with genuine efforts to find incremental customers. In contrast, it’s wholly consistent with the practice I observed in which Aspira claims commission without any expense to find or attract users.

Whatever the benefits to Aspira and its partners, the effect on merchants is clearly negative: Aspira causes extra advertising expense without providing incremental purchases. Affiliate merchants should reject Aspira’s approach, save their marketing budgets for publishers with genuine incremental value, and encourage Aspira to shift to other activities.

Thanks to Thomas Rice for bringing this practice to my attention and facilitating my collection of proof of Aspira’s practices.