Zango’s Compliance Problems

Last November, Zango and the FTC announced a settlement of the FTC’s investigation of Zango’s practices. Among the key requirements: Zango agreed to install only after “clearly and prominently disclos[ing] the material terms [of its software] prior to the display of, and separate from, any [EULA].” Zango further agreed to label each of its ads with a “clear[] and prominent[]” marking as to the source of the ad, as well as a hyperlink to removal and complaint procedures.

Some of Zango’s installations do some of what the settlement requires. But others don’t. Today I’m posting a critique. In a series of screenshots, I show widespread Zango installations with no disclosure outside of a EULA. I also present numerous Zango ads appearing with no labeling at all. Details:

Zango Practices Violating Zango’s Recent Settlement with the FTC

Bad Practices Continue at Zango, Notwithstanding Proposed FTC Settlement and Zango’s Claims with Eric Howes; updated December 8, 2006

Earlier this month, the FTC announced the proposed settlement of its investigation into Zango, makers of advertising software widely installed onto users’ computers without their consent or without their informed consent (among other bad practices).

We commend the proposed settlement’s core terms. But despite these strong provisions, bad practices continue at Zango — practices that, in our judgment, put Zango in violation of the key terms and requirements of the FTC settlement. We begin by explaining the proposed settlement’s requirements. We then present eight types of violations of the proposed settlement, with specific examples of each. We conclude with recommendations and additional analysis.

Except where otherwise indicated, this document describes only downloads we tested during November 2006 — current, recent installations and behaviors.

Zango’s Burdens Under the Proposed FTC Settlement

The FTC’s proposed settlement with Zango imposes a number of important requirements and burdens on Zango, including Zango’s installation and advertising practices. Specifically, the settlement:

  • Prohibits Zango from using “any legacy program to display any advertisement to, or otherwise communicate with, a consumer’s computer.” (settlement I)
  • Prohibits Zango from (directly or via third parties) “exploit[ing] a security vulnerability … to download or install onto any computer any software code, program, or content.” (II)
  • Prohibits from Zango installing software onto users’ computers without “express consent.” Obtaining “express consent” requires “clearly and prominently disclos[ing] the material terms of such software program or application prior to the display of, and separate from, any final End User License Agreement.” (III) Defines “prominent” disclosure to be, among other requirements, “unavoidable.” (definition 5)
  • Requires Zango to “provide a reasonable and effective means for consumers to uninstall the software or application,” e.g. through a computers’ Add/Remove utility. (VII)
  • Requires Zango to “clearly and prominently” label each advertisement it displays. (VI)

These are serious burdens and requirements that, were they zealously satisfied by Zango, would do much to protect consumers from the numerous nonconsensual and misleading Zango installations we have observed.

Zango Is Not In Compliance with the Proposed Settlement

Zango has claimed that it “has met or exceeded the key notice and consent standards detailed in the FTC consent order since at least January 1, 2006.”

Despite Zango’s claim, we continue to find ongoing installations of Zango’s software that fall far short of the proposed settlement’s burdens, requirements, and standards. The example installations that we present below establish that Zango’s current installation and advertising practices remain in violation of the terms and requirements of the proposed settlement.

  • “Material Terms” Disclosed Only in EULA
    Zango often announces “material terms” only in its End User License Agreement, not in the more prominent locations required by the proposed settlement. (Examples A, B)
  • “Material Terms” Omitted from Disclosure
    Zango often omits “material terms” from its prominent installation disclosures — failing to prominently disclose facts likely to affect consumers’ decisions to install Zango’s software. (Examples A, B, C)
  • Disclosures Not Clear & Prominent 
    Zango presents disclosures in a manner and format such that these disclosures fail to gain the required “express consent” of users because the disclosures are not “clearly and prominently” displayed. (Examples B, E, F)
  • Disclosures Presented Only After Software Download & Execution
    Zango presents disclosures only after the installation and execution of Zango’s software on the users’ computers has already occurred, contrary to the terms of the proposed settlement. (Examples C, F)
  • No Disclosure Provided Whatsoever
    Some Zango software continues to become installed with no disclosure whatsoever. (Example D)
  • Installation & Servicing of Legacy Programs
    Older versions of Zango’s software — versions with installation, uninstallation, and/or disclosure inconsistent with the proposed settlement — continue to become installed and to communicate with Zango servers. (Examples C, D, E, F)
  • Installations Promoted & Performed through Miscellaneous Other Deceptive Means & Circumstances
    Zango installs are still known to be promoted and performed in or through a variety of miscellaneous practices that can only be characterized as deceptive. (Multiple examples in section G)
  • Unlabeled Advertising
    Some Zango advertisements lack the labeling required by the proposed settlement. (Multiple examples in section H)

These improper practices remain remarkably easy to find, and we have numerous additional recent examples on file. Moreover, these problems are sufficiently serious that they cast doubt on the efficacy and viability of the FTC’s proposed settlement as well as Zango’s ability to meet the requirements of the settlement.

Example A: Zango’s Ongoing Misleading Installations On and From Its Own Servers

The proposed settlement requires “express consent” before software may be “install[ed] or “download[ed]” onto users’ PCs (III). The term “prominent” is defined to mean “clear[] and prominent[]” disclosure of “the material terms” of the program to be installed, and most of Zango’s recent installation disclosures seem to meet this standard. But we are concerned by what those disclosures say. In our view, the disclosures omit the material facts Zango is obliged to disclose.

Although the proposed settlement does not explain what constitute “material” terms, other FTC authority provides a definition. The FTC’s Policy Statement on Deception, holds that a material fact is one “likely to affect the consumer’s conduct or decision with regard to a product or service.”

From our analysis of Zango’s software, we think Zango has two material features — two features particularly likely to affect a reasonable user’s decision to install (or not install) Zango software. First, users must know that Zango will give them extra pop-up ads — not just “advertisements,” but pop-ups that appear in separate, freestanding windows. Second, users must know that Zango will transmit detailed information to its servers, including information about what web pages they view, and what they search for.

A Misleading Zango Installer Appearing Within Windows Media Player A Misleading Zango Installer Appearing Within Windows Media Player

Unfortunately, many of Zango’s installations fail to include these disclosures with the required prominence. Consider the screen shown at right. Here, Zango admits that it shows “advertisements,” but Zango fails to disclose that its ads appear in pop-ups. Zango’s use of the word “advertisements,” with nothing more, suggests that Zango’s ads appear in standard advertising formats — formats users are more inclined to tolerate, like ordinary banner ads within web pages (e.g. the ads at or within other software programs (e.g. the ads in MSN Messenger). In fact Zango’s pop-up ads are quite different, in that they appear in pop-ups known to be particularly annoying and intrusive. But the word “advertisements” does nothing to alert users to this crucial fact.

Zango also fails to disclose that its servers receive detailed information about users’ online behavior. Zango tell users that ads are “based on” users’ browsing. But this disclosure is not enough, because it omits a material fact. In particular, the disclosure fails to explain that users’ behavior will be transmitted to Zango, a fact that would influence reasonable users’ decision to install Zango.

In addition, Zango’s description of its toolbar omits important, material effects of the toolbar — namely, that the toolbar will show distracting animated ads. Zango says only that the toolbar “lets [users] search the Internet from any webpage” — entirely failing to mention the toolbar’s advertising,

We’re also concerned about the format and circumstances of these installation screens. Zango’s installation request appears in a Windows Media “license acquisition” screen — a system Microsoft provides for bona fide license acquisition, not for the installation of spyware or adware. Zango’s installer appears within Windows Media Player — a context where few users will expect to be on the lookout for unwanted advertising software, particularly when users had merely sought to watch a video, not to install any software whatsoever. Furthermore, the button to proceed with installation is misleadingly labeled “Play Now” — not “I Accept,” Install,” or any other caption that might alert users to the consequences of pressing the button. The screen’s small size further adds to user confusion: At just 485 by 295 pixels, the window doesn’t have room to explain the material effects of Zango’s software, even with Zango’s extra-small font. (In Zango’s main disclosure, capital letters are just seven pixels tall.) Furthermore, a user seeking to read Zango’s EULA (as embedded in these installation screens) faces a remarkable challenge: The 3,033 word document is shown in a box just five lines tall, therefore requiring fully 53 on-screen pages to view in full. Finally, if a user ultimately presses the “Play Now ” button, then the “Open” button on the standard Open/Save box that follows, Zango installs immediately, without any further opportunity for users to learn more or to change their mind. Such a rapid installation is contrary to standard Windows convention of further disclosures within an EXE installer, providing further opportunities for users to learn more and to change their minds. Video capture of this installation sequence.

All in all, we think typical users would be confused by this screen — unable to figure out who it comes from, what it seeks to do, or what exactly will occur if they press the Play Now button. A more appropriate installation sequence would use a standard format users better understand (e.g. a web page requesting permission to install), would tell users far more about the software they’re receiving, and would label its buttons far more clearly.

These installations are under Zango’s direct control: They are loaded directly from Zango’s servers. Were Zango so inclined, it could immediately terminate this installation sequence, or it could rework these installations, without any cooperation with (or even requests to) its distributors.

Example B: Zango’s Ongoing Misleading Hotbar Installations On and From Its Own Servers

Hotbar's Initial Installation Solicitation - Silent as to Hotbar's Effects Hotbar’s Initial Installation Solicitation – Silent as to Hotbar’s Effects

Hotbar's ActiveX Installer - Without Disclosure of Material Effects Hotbar’s ActiveX Installer – Without Disclosure of Material Effects

Final Step in Hotbar Installation - No Cancel Button, No Disclosure of Material Effects Final Step in Hotbar Installation – No Cancel Button, No Disclosure of Material Effects

The “express consent” required under the proposed settlement applies not just to software branded as “Zango,” but also to all other software installed or downloaded by Zango. (See “any software” in section III.) The “express consent” requirement therefore applies to Hotbar-branded software owned by Zango as a result of Zango’s recent merger with Hotbar. But Hotbar installations fail to include unavoidable disclosures of material effects, despite the requirements in the proposed settlement.

Consider the Hotbar installation shown in this video and in the screenshots at right. The installation sequence begins with an ad offering “free new emotion icons” (first screenshot at right) — certainly no disclosure of the resulting advertising software, the kinds of ads to be shown, or the significant privacy effects. If a user clicks that ad, the user receives the second screenshot at right — a bare ActiveX screen, again lacking a substantive statement of material effects of installing. If the user presses Yes in the ActiveX screen, the user receives the third screen at right — disclosing some features of Hotbar (e.g. weather, wallpapers, screensavers), and vaguely admitting that Hotbar is “ad supported,” but saying nothing whatsoever about the specific types of ads (e.g. intrusive in-browser toolbar animations) nor the privacy consequences. Furthermore, this third screen lacks any button by which users can decline or cancel installation. (Note the absence of any “cancel” button, or even an “x” in the upper-right corner.)

This installation sequence is substantially unchanged from what Edelman reported in May 2005.

This installation lacks the unavoidable material disclosures required under the proposed settlement. We see no way to reconcile this installation sequence with the requirements of the proposed settlement.

Example C: Incomplete, Nonsensical, and Inconsistent Disclosures Shown by Aaascreensavers Installing Zango Software

Aaascreensavers' Initial Zango Prompt - Omitting Key Material Information Aaascreensavers’ Initial Zango Prompt – Omitting Key Material Information

Zango's Subsequent Screen -- with deficiencies set out in the text at left Zango’s Subsequent Screen — with deficiencies set out in the text at left

We also remain concerned about third parties installing Zango’s software without the required user consent. Zango’s past features a remarkable serious of bad-actor distributors, from exploit-based installers to botnets to faked consent. Even today, some distributors continue to install Zango without providing the required “clear and prominent” notice of “material” effects.

Consider an installation of Zango from Aaascreensavers provides a generic “n-Case” installation disclosure that says nothing about the specifics of Zango’s practices — omitting even the word “advertisements,” not to mention “pop-ups” or privacy consequences. (See first screenshot at right.) Furthermore, Aaascreensavers fails to show or even reference a EULA for Zango’s software. Nonetheless, Aaascreensavers continues to place Zango software onto users’ PCs through these installers.

Particularly striking is the nonsensical screen that appears shortly after Aaascreensavers installs Zango. (See second screenshot at right.) Beneath a caption labeled “Setup,” the screen states “the content on this site is free, thanks to 180search Assistant” — although the user has just installed a program (and is not browsing a site), and the program the user (arguably) just agreed to install was called “n-Case” not “180search Assistant.” At least as paradoxically, the “Setup” screen asks users to choose between “Uninstall[ing] 180search Assistant” and “Keep[ing]” the software. Since “180search Assistant” is software reasonable users will not even know they have, this choice is particularly likely to puzzle typical users. After all, it is nonsense to speak of a user making an informed decision to “keep” software he didn’t know he had.

Crucially, both installation prompts omit the material information Zango must disclose under its settlement obligations: Neither prompt mentions that ads will be shown in pop-ups, nor do they mention the important privacy effects of installing Zango software.

Video capture of this installation sequence.

Example D: Msnemotions Installing Zango with No Disclosure At All

Msnemotions continues to install Zango software with no disclosure whatsoever. In particular, Msnemotions never shows any license agreement, nor does it mention or reference Zango in any other on-screen text, even if users fully scroll through all listings presented to them. Video proof.

This installation is a clear violation of section III of the proposed FTC settlement. That section prohibits Zango “directly, or through any person [from] install[ing] or download[ing] … any software program or application without express consent.” Here, no such consent was obtained, yet Zango software downloaded and installed anyway.

In our tests, this Zango installation did not show any ads (although it did contact a Zango server and download a 20MB file). Nonetheless, the violation of section III occurs as soon as the Zango software is downloaded onto the user’s computer, for lack of the requisite disclosure and consent.

Example E: Emomagic Installing Zango with an Off-Screen Disclosure

Emomagic First Mentions Zango Five Pages Down In Its EULA
Emomagic First Mentions Zango 5 Pages Down In Its EULA

Emomagic continues to install Zango software with a disclosure buried five pages within its lengthy (23 on-screen-page) license agreement. That is, unless a user happened to scroll to at least the fifth page of the Emomagic license, the user would not learn that installing Emomagic installs Zango too. Video proof.

This installation is a clear violation of the proposed FTC settlement, because the hidden disclosure of Zango software is not “unavoidable.” In contrast, the proposed Settlement’s provision III and definition 5 define “prominent” disclosures to be those that are unavoidable, among other requirements.

We have additional examples on file where the first mention of Zango comes as far as 64 pages into a EULA presented in a scroll box. See also example F, below, where Zango appears 44 pages into a EULA, after the GPL.

Example F: Warez P2P Speedup Pro Installing Zango with an Off-Screen Disclosure

Warez P2P First Mentions Zango at Page 44 of its EULA, Below the GPL Warez P2P First Mentions Zango at Page 44 of its EULA, Below the GPL

Warez P2P Speedup Pro continues to install Zango software with a disclosure buried 44 pages within its lengthy license agreement. Video proof. Users are unlikely to see mention of Zango in part because Zango’s first mention comes so far down within the EULA.

Users are particularly unlikely to find Zango’s EULA because the first 43 pages of the EULA scroll box show the General Public License (GPL). (Screenshot of the first page, giving no suggestion that anything but the GPL appears within the scroll box.) Sophisticated users may already be familiar with this license, which is known for the many rights it grants to users and independent developers. Recognizing this pro-consumer license, even sophisticated users are discouraged from reviewing the scroll box’s contents in full — making it all the less likely that they will find the Zango license further down.

After installation, Warez P2P Speedup Pro proceeds to the second screen shown in Example C, above. The video confirms the special deceptiveness of this screen: If a user chooses the “uninstall” button — exercising his option (however deceptively mislabeled) to refuse Zango’s software — the user then receives a further screen attempting to get the user to change his mind and accept installation after all. The substance of this screen is especially deceptive — asking the user whether he wants to “cancel,” when in fact he had never elected even to start the Zango installation sequence in the first place. Finally, if the user presses the “Exit Setup” button on that final screen, the user is told he must restart his computer — a particularly galling and unnecessary interruption.

Section G: Zango Installations Predicated on Consumer Deception or on Use of Other Vendors’ Spyware

A Zango Ad Injected into Google by FullContext A Zango Ad Injected into Google by FullContext

We have also observed Zango installs occurring subsequent to consumer deception or other vendors sending spyware-delivered traffic to Zango.

Fullcontext spyware promoting Zango. We have observed Fullcontext spyware (itself widely installed without consent) injecting Zango ads into third parties’ web sites. Through this process, Zango ads appear without the permission of the sites in which they are shown, and without payment to those sites. These ads even appear in places in which no banner ads are not available for purchase at any price. See e.g. the screenshot at right, showing a Zango banner ad injected to appear above Google’s search results.

Typosquatters promoting Zango. Separately, Websense and Chris Boyd recently documented Zango installs commencing at “Yootube”. “Yootube” is a clear typosquat on the well-known “Youtube” site — hoping to reach users who mistype the address of the more popular site. If users reach the misspelled site, they will be encouraged to install Zango. Such Zango installations are predicated on a typosquat, e.g. on users reaching a site other than what they intended — a particularly clear example of deception serving a key role in the Zango installation process.

Spyware bundlers promoting Zango. In our testing of summer and fall 2006, we repeatedly observed Zango “S3” installer programs downloaded onto users’ computers by spyware-bundlers themselves operating without user consent (e.g. DollarRevenue and TopInstalls). Users received these Zango installation prompts among an assault of literally dozens of other programs. Any consent obtained through this method is predicated on an improper, nonconsensual arrival onto users’ PCs — a circumstance in which we think users cannot grant informed consent. Furthermore. the proposed settlement requires “express consent” before “installing or downloading” (emphasis added) “any software” onto users’ PCs (section III). Zango’s S3 installer is a “software program” within the meaning of the proposed settlement, yet DollarRevenue and TopInstalls downloaded this program onto users’ computers without consent. So these downloads violate the plain language of the proposed settlement, even where users ultimately refuse to install Zango software.

Update (December 8): We have uncovered still other Zango installations predicated on deception, including on phishing at MySpace. We discuss these improper practices in our follow-up comment to the FTC. Our bottom line: These Zango installs are disturbing not because they put zango in violation of hte terms of hte proposed settlement, but precisely because they do not — because tehse isntallations, disturbing though they may be, do not clearly violate any of the settlement’s requirements. These installations raise the alarming prospect that this settlement could allow Zango to continue to pay distributors to create malicious and/or deceptive software and web pages.

Section H: Unlabeled Ads

Today CDT filed a further comment about the FTC’s proposed settlement, focusing in part on Zango’s recent display of unlabeled ads, again specifically contrary to Zango’s obligations under the proposed settlement (section VI). CDT has proof of 39 unlabeled ads — 10% of their recent partially-automated tests — in which Zango’s pop-up ads lacked the labeling required under the proposed settlement. CDT explains that the ads “provide[d] absolutely no information that would allow consumers to correlate the advertisements’ origins to Zango’s software.”

We share CDT’s concern, because we too have repeatedly seen these problems. For example, this video shows a Zango ad served on November 19, 2006 — with labeling that disappears after less than four seconds on screen (from 0:02 to 0:06 in the video). Furthermore, Edelman first reported this same problem in July 2004: That when ads include redirects (as many do), Zango’s labeling often disappears. Compliance with the proposed settlement requires that Zango’s labeling appear on each and every ad, not just on some of the ads or even on most of the ads. So, here too, Zango is in breach of the proposed settlement.

Furthermore, the proposed settlement’s labeling requirement applies to “any advertisement” Zango serves — not just to Zango’s pop-ups, but to other ads too. Zango’s toolbars show many ads, as depicted in the screenshots below. Yet these toolbars lack the labeling and hyperlinks required by the proposed settlement. These unlabeled toolbars therefore constitute an additional violation of Zango’s duties under the proposed settlement.

Zango and Zango/Hotbar Toolbars Without the Labeling Required under the Proposed Settlement

The Size of Zango’s Payment to the FTC

We are puzzled by the size of the cash payment to be made by Zango. We understand that the FTC’s authority is limited to reclaiming ill-gotten profits, not to extracting penalties. But we think Zango’s profits to date far exceed the $3 million payment specified in the proposed settlement.

Available evidence suggests Zango’s company-to-date profits are substantial, probably beyond $3 million. As a threshold matter, Zango’s business is large: Zango claims to have 20 million active users at present (albeit with some “churn” as users manage to uninstall Zango’s software). Furthermore, Zango’s revenues are large: Zango recently told a reporter of daily revenues of $100,000 (i.e. $36 million per year), a slight increase from a 2003 report of $75,000 per day. With annual revenues on the order of $20 to $40 million, and with three years of operation to date, we find it inconceivable that Zango has made only $3 million of profit.

Zango’s prior statements and other companies’ records also both indicate that Zango’s profits exceed $3 million. A 2005 Forbes article confirms high profits at Zango, reporting “double-digit percentage growth in profits” — though without stating the baseline level of profits. But financial records from competing “adware” vendor Direct Revenue indicate a remarkable 75%+ profit margin: In 2004, DR earned $30 million of pre-tax profit on $38 million of revenue. Because Zango’s business is in many respects similar to DR, Zango’s profit margin is also likely to be substantial, albeit reduced from the 2004-era “adware” peak. Even if Zango’s profit margin were an order of magnitude lower, i.e. 7%, Zango would still have earned far more than $3 million profits over the past several years.

If Zango’s profits substantially exceed $3 million, as we think they do, the settlement’s payment is only a slap on the wrist. A tougher fine — such as full disgorgement of all company-to-date profits worldwide — would better send the message that Zango’s practices are and have been unacceptable.

Zango’s Statements and the Need for Enforcement

In its November 3 press release, Zango claims its reforms are already in place. “Every consumer downloading Zango’s desktop advertising software sees a fully and conspicuously disclosed, plain-language notice and consent process,” Zango’s press release proclaims. This claim is exactly contrary to the numerous examples we present above. Zango further claims that it “has met or exceeded the key notice and consent standards detailed in the FTC consent order since at least January 1, 2006” — again contrary to our findings that nonconsensual and deceptive installations remain ongoing.

From the FTC’s press release and from recent statements of FTC commissioners and staff, it appears the FTC intends to send a tough message to makers of advertising software. We commend the FTC’s goal. The proposed settlement, if appropriately enforced, might send such a message. But we worry the FTC will send exactly the opposite message if it allows Zango to claim compliance without actually doing what the proposed settlement requires.

As a first step, we endorse CDT’s suggestion that the FTC require Zango to retract its claim of compliance with the proposed settlement. Zango’s statement is false, and the FTC should not stand by while Zango mischaracterizes its behavior vis-a-vis the proposed settlement.

More broadly, we believe intensive ongoing monitoring will be required to assure that Zango actually complies with the settlement. We have spent 3+ years following Zango’s repeated promises of “reform,” and we have first-hand experience with the wide variety of techniques Zango and its partners have used to place software onto users’ PCs. Testing these methods requires more than black-letter contracts and agreements; it requires hands-on testing of actual infected PCs and the scores of diverse infection mechanisms Zango’s partners devise. To assure that Zango actually complies with the agreement, we think the FTC will need to allocate its investigatory resources accordingly. We’ve spent approximately 10 hours on the investigations leading to the results above, and we’ve uncovered these examples as well as various others. With dozens or hundreds of hours, we think we could find many more surviving Zango installations in violation of the proposed settlement’s requirements. We think the FTC ought to find these installations, or require that Zango do so, and then ought to see that the associated files are entirely removed from the web.

Update (December 8): Our follow-up comment to the FTC discusses additional concerns, further ongoing bad practices at Zango, and the special difficulty of enforcement in light of practices seemingly not prohibited by the proposed settlement.

Intermix Revisited

I recently had the honor of serving as an expert witness in The People of the State of California ex. rel. Rockard J. Delgadillo, Los Angeles City Attorney v. Intermix Media, Inc., Case No. BC343196 (L.A. Superior Court), litigation brought by the City Attorney of Los Angeles (on behalf of the people of California)against Intermix. Though Intermix is better known for creating MySpace, Intermix also made spyware that, among other effects, can become installed on users’ computers without their consent.

On Monday the parties announced a settlement under which Intermix will pay total monetary relief of $300,000 (including $125,000 of penalties, $50,000 in costs of investigation, and $125,000 in a contribution of computers to local non-profits). Intermix will also assure that third parties cease continued distribution of its software, among other injunctive relief. These penalties are in addition to Intermix’s 2005 $7.5 million settlement with the New York Attorney General.

In the course of this matter, I had occasion to examine my records of past Intermix installations. For example, within my records of installations I personally observed nearly two years ago, I found video evidence of Intermix becoming installed by SecondThought. By all indications, SecondThought’s exploit-based installers placed Intermix onto users’ computers without notice or consent.

Using web pages and installer files found on, I also demonstrated that installations on Intermix’s own web sites were remarkably deficient. For example, some Intermix installations disclosed only a portion of the Intermix programs that would become installed, systematically failing to tell users about other programs they would receive if they went forward with installation. Most Intermix installations failed to affirmatively show users their license agreements, instead requiring users to affirmatively click to access the licenses; and in some instances, even when a user did click, the license was presented without scroll bars, such that even a determined user couldn’t read the full license. Furthermore, some Intermix installations claimed a home page change would occur only if a user chose that option (“you can choose to have your default start page reset”), when in fact that change occurred no matter what, without giving users any choice.

Remarkably, I also found evidence of ongoing Intermix installations, despite Intermix’s 2005 promise to “permanently discontinue distribution of its adware, redirect and toolbar programs.” For example, in my testing of October 2006 and again just yesterday, the Battling Bones screensaver (among various others) was still available on (a third-party site). Installing Battling Bones gives users Intermix’s Incredifind too. Even worse, this installation proceeds without any disclosure to the user of the Intermix software that would be installed. (Video proof. The installer’s EULA mentions various other programs to be installed, but it never mentions Intermix or the specific Intermix programs that in fact were installed.) Furthermore, I found dozens of “.CAB” installation files still on Intermix’s own web servers — particularly hard to reconcile with Intermix’s claim of having abandoned this business nearly two years months ago. Truly shutting down the business would have entailed deleting all such files from all servers controlled by Intermix.

I continue to think there’s substantial room for litigation against US-based spyware vendors. I continue to see nonconsensual and materially deceptive installations by numerous identifiable US spyware vendors. (For example, I posted a fresh nonconsensual toolbar installation just last month. And I see more nonconsensual installations of other US-based vendors’ programs, day in and day out.) These vendors continue to cause substantial harm to the users who receive their unwanted software.

Technology news sites and forums have been abuzz over the FTC’s proposed settlement with Zango, whose advertising software has widely been installed without consent or without informed consent. I commend the FTC’s investigation, and the injunctive terms of the settlement (i.e. what Zango has to do) are appropriately tough. Oddly, Zango claims to have “met or exceeded the key notice and consent standards … since at least January 1, 2006.” I disagree. From what I’ve seen, Zango remains out of compliance to this day. I’m putting together appropriate screenshot and video proof.

Direct Revenue’s Dirty Documents

On Tuesday, the New York Attorney General filed suit against notorious spyware vendor Direct Revenue. In a detailed complaint, the NYAG alleged Direct Revenue surreptitiously installed spyware onto users’ computers and made its spyware exceptionally difficult to remove. The suit includes claims under New York’s General Business Law (prohibiting false advertising and deceptive business practices), New York’s Penal Law (prohibiting computer tampering), and New York’s common law prohibitions against trespass.

The NYAG’s complaint was accompanied by more than a thousand pages of exhibits and appendices. Some of these documents present the results of NYAG’s testing — narratives of misleading and nonconsensual installation, not unlike my own installation tests. But the NYAG also produced a treasure trove of documents: Internal Direct Revenue documents, records, and emails that present their strategy, intentions, and plans in great detail.

I have obtained these additional documents and posted them to a new page:

People of the State of New York v. Direct Revenue, LLC – Documents and Analysis

Some documents and findings of particular interest:

  • Revenues reported at $6.9 million in 2003, $39 million in 2004, $33 million in January-October 2005. 2004 expenses total only $13 million, for a profit margin of 66%.
  • Payments to Direct Revenue’s senior staff, totaling more than $27 million.
  • A list of distributors of Direct Revenue’s spyware, with the number of installations attributable to each.
  • Admission that Direct Revenue for a time sold a “majority” of its advertising through ad networks Traffic Marketplace and ValueClick.
  • Admission that Direct Revenue’s ads appear so frequently that they constitute “user abuse.” But reducing ad frequency lowers company revenues, so frequency stays high.
  • Admission that Direct Revenue previously tracked and transmited users’ GET and POST data — names, addresses, emails — and even sent this data to third parties Hitwise and Itemizes the specific personal information collected from online forms: first name, last name, e-mail address, street address, and zip code. Hitwise reports successfully analyzing and matching users’ IDs, genders, and phone numbers.
  • Instructs making Direct Revenue harder to remove, by deleting its entry from Control Panel’s Add/Remove Programs, because too many users were relying on that method to remove Direct Revenue.
  • Report of April-June 2005 payments from Yahoo, totaling more than $600,000 in those three months alone.
  • Installation by Direct Revenue of Ebates’ Moe Money Maker onto users’ computers.
  • Listing of Direct Revenue’s many names and shell companies, all used to confuse and deceive the public.
  • Complaints from Direct Revenue partners, such as Kazaa (which called Direct Revenue’s ads “purposefully confusing to the user”) and Integrated Search (which wanted Direct Revenue to include an uninstaller in Control Panel, as previously promised)
  • Threatening the Center for Democracy and Technology. Demanding revisions from CNET. Hiring an investigator to track anti-spyware researcher Webhelper, and planning tactics to intimidate him.
  • Claims I am “losing credibility in the industry” and calls me a “fanatic.”
  • Endorses NYAG’s suit against Intermix as an “important opportunity to draw a bright line between purveyors of spyware and legitimate behavioral marketing companies like Direct Revenue.”
  • Scores of complaints from users (1, 2, 3 , 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9) Direct Revenue staff call one complaining user an “idiot.”
  • Complaints from Direct Revenue’s investors get special handling. One investor worries that another member of his investment firm, former Secretary of the Treasury Bob Rubin, may learn of Direct Revenue’s practices.
  • Reports daily revenue per user at approximately $0.015 (one and one half cents per user per day). (Compare that revenue with the harm caused to users — the amount a typical user would be willing to pay not to have Direct Revenue installed.)

See also others’ analysis of the documents.

I still have a few more documents to post, and I’ll be uploading them later today.

Utah Spyware Control Act On Hold updated July 7, 2004

Today brought closing arguments in, Inc., v. The State of Utah.

After closing arguments, Judge Fratto granted WhenU’s Motion for Preliminary Injunction, enjoining current enforcement of the Spyware Control Act. Ruling from the bench, Judge Fratto stated that he was not persuaded that WhenU had satisfied the requirements of showing a substantial likelihood of prevailing on the merits of its constitutional challenge as to the spyware provisions of the Act, but that WhenU had satisfied such showing regarding the context-triggered pop-up ads provision. Nonetheless, Judge Fratto enjoined enforcement of the act in its entirety. See transcript of ruling.

For my perspective on the factual portion of the hearing, June 10-11, see Report from WhenU v Utah.

Report from WhenU v Utah updated June 13, 2004

In April I mentioned WhenU’s suit against the state of Utah, challenging Utah’s recent Spyware Control Act. Oral argument took place yesterday and today as to WhenU’s motion for preliminary injunction.

Consistent with case filings, WhenU claimed that the company cannot reliably determine which users are in Utah and which are elsewhere. However, documents presented in the hearing showed that WhenU offers its advertisers the service of showing their ads only in particular locations, including in particular states.

Counsel for the state of Utah also asked WhenU’s CEO about WhenU’s display of advertising for online gambling and for online liquor sales. My testing demonstrated that WhenU shows such ads in Utah, but longstanding Utah law is thought to prohibit these ads. So WhenU will have to develop — arguably, already should have developed! — systems to avoid showing these ads in Utah. WhenU has criticized the Spyware Control Act, claiming that compliance would be difficult and costly. But WhenU must satisfy Utah’s gambling and liquor laws independent of the Spyware Control Act. So much for the purportedly high burden of Utah’s spyware regulation.

In my own oral testimony, I explained the methods of installation and operation of spyware. In one notable section, I showed videos of WhenU software installed via drive-by downloads with defective license agreements, such that even when a user requested to view WhenU’s license agreement, the license was not available.

Details in, Inc., v. The State of Utah – Case Documents. The hearing will conclude on June 22, 2004, and the Court’s decision is expected thereafter.

Spyware, Adware, and Malware: Research, Testing, Legislation, and Suits

A number of firms currently design and offer so-called “spyware” software — programs that monitor user activities, and transmit user information to remote servers and/or show targeted advertisements. As distinguished from the design model anticipated by’s definition of adware (“any software application in which advertising banners are displayed while the program is running”), these spyware programs run continuously and show advertisements specifically responding to the web sites that users visit. Companies making programs in this latter category include Gator (recently renamed Claria), WhenU, and 180Solutions. Other spyware programs include keystroke recorders, screen capture programs, and numerous additional software systems that surreptitiously monitor and/or transmit users’ activities. As programs and practices shift and terms evolve, some practices are more naturally termed “adware” or “malware” — especially if their tracking is secondary to an advertising purpose.

These programs have prompted a number of legal challenges, as described in the pending suits section, below. They have also attracted attention from legislators, who have proposed laws to rein in the problem.

I have followed these developments generally, I have written about the programs and their effects, and I have been retained as an expert in certain of these suits. This page indexes my research and my work in selected cases.

Spyware, Adware, and Malware: Research, Testing, Legislation, and Suits