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

ComScore Doesn’t Always Get Consent updated July 26, 2007

This past Wednesday, ComScore raised $82 million in an IPO that jumped 42% in its first day of trading. Some investors clearly like ComScore’s business, but I wonder whether they fully understand ComScore’s business model, privacy implications, and poor track record of nonconsensual installations.

ComScore’s tracking software is remarkably invasive. The privacy policy for ComScore’s RelevantKnowledge tracking program purports to grant ComScore the right to track users’ name and address, browsing, shopping, and even “online accounts … includ[ing] personal financial [and] health information.” Based on these privacy concerns, well-respected security researchers have long warned about ComScore’s software. For example, in 2004 Cornell University began blocking all communications with ComScore’s MarketScore tracking servers. Multiple other universities (including Columbia University and Indiana University) followed up with special warnings to their users.

At least as serious are ComScore’s installation practices. ComScore pays independent distributors to install ComScore software onto users’ computers. Predictably, some of these distributors install ComScore software without getting user consent. Some specific examples:

  • On Wednesday (June 27, 2007), I browsed ExitExchange, a well-known banner farm widely loaded in popups and popunders by various sites (as well as some spyware programs). ExitExchange showed several ads, one of which performed a security exploit that installed ComScore’s RelevantKnowledge. See video proof. Notice the exploit beginning at 0:12. When I ran a HijackThis scan to check for infections (0:29), I found RelevantKnowledge’s “rk.exe” already running (1:10), even though I had not granted permission for it to install. Packet log analysis indicates that the installation was performed by Topinstalls and by Searchclickads. The installation was predicated on two simultaneous attempted exploits — one using a Java vulnerability, another using a Microsoft MSXML vulnerability. Also installed (all without my consent): Deskwizz/Searchingbooth, Look2me, and WebBuying, among others not yet identified.
  • I previously observed and recorded a substantially similar nonconsensual installation of RelevantKnowledge (by these same distributors) on April 26, 2007.
  • Spyware researchers at Sunbelt Software observed a nonconsensual installation of RelevantKnowledge, seemingly by these same distributors, earlier in June 2007. Sunbelt staff browsed FirstStolz and received an exploit that installed TopInstalls and Searchclickads, which in turn installed RelevantKnowledge.
  • In August-September 2006, I repeatedly observed RelevantKnowledge installed by DollarRevenue, a notorious spyware bundler (subsequently shut down by Dutch law enforcement). In my testing, DollarRevenue installed RelevantKnowledge software without users’ consent. ComScore staff later admitted they had “engaged in partnership negotiations with DollarRevenue.” ComScore claims it never paid DollarRevenue — but I personally observed and recorded DollarRevenue installing ComScore software onto my testing systems.
  • In November 2005, I observed ComScore’s MarketScore software installed by PacerD, a notorious spyware bundler that installed through widespread exploits syndicated through ad networks. PacerD installed RelevantKnowledge without user consent.
  • In April 2007, I observed ComScore’s MarketScore software installed when users request and install a media converter program. The inclusion of MarketScore was disclosed only if users scrolled to page four of a box simply labeled “License Agreement.” No on-screen label indicated that multiple documents were concatenated into that single scroll box, nor did any short notice or other prominent text make any mention of RelevantKnowledge’s presence or effects. These omissions stand in stark contrast to recent FTC precedent requiring “clear and prominent disclosure of material terms prior to and separate from any end user license agreement.”

ComScore’s nonconsensual installations are particularly notable because TRUSTe’s Trusted Download program recently granted a certification (albeit “provisional”) to ComScore’s RelevantKnowledge software. I’ve previously criticized other TRUSTe certifications — concerned that TRUSTe-certified sites may be no safer than other sites, and arguably less safe. That said, to TRUSTe’s credit, Integrated Search Technologies’ Vomba is no longer on TRUSTe’s Trusted Download list — albeit a result that TRUSTe attributes to Vomba’s financial concerns rather than to security researcherscritique of Vomba’s practices and lineage. Whatever the reasons for IST’s removal, perhaps ComScore’s MarketScorecould stand for an equally thorough review.

ComScore also boasts a “WebTrust” seal from Ernst & Young. See the associated Audit Report. Ernst & Young indicates that it “test[ed] and evaluat[ed] the operating effectiveness” of ComSCore’s internal controls but concedes that “error or fraud may occur and not be detected.”

Update – TRUSTe’s Response (July 26, 2007)

On Friday July 20 — well after the close of the East Coast business day, and fully three weeks after I first reported the nonconsensual installs described above — TRUSTe announced that ComScore’s RelevantKnowledge has been removed from the Trusted Download whitelist for three months.

I have mixed views about this outcome. On one hand, it’s certainly an improvement from prior TRUSTe practice, during which companies as notorious as Direct Revenue were allowed to continue to hold TRUSTe privacy seals despite widespread nonconsensual installations. But a comment from Sunbelt Software’s Eric Howes offers compelling concerns. Eric explains:

[TRUSTe has] essentially decided to continue working with ComScore, provided ComScore spends a token amount of time in the “naughty corner.” … Who loses as a result? Consumers and web surfers ultimately, as ComScore will be allowed to continue plying its trade of surreptitious, underhanded installs of its RelevantKnowledge software to support some very aggressive and intrusive data collection on unsuspecting users’ machines, all with PR cover from TRUSTe.

Eric also cites a June 27 exchange between Sunbelt CEO Alex Eckleberry and TRUSTe’s Colin O’Malley. Transcribing from the audio recording of the Anti-Spyware Coalition‘s public workshop :

Alex Eckelberry: “So what if you have an application that is installing through an exploit? Do those guys go through a probationary process, or do they just get cut off? Are they just gone?”

Colin O’Malley: “If they’re installing through an exploit, that’s covered in what’s described in what we describe as our prohibited activities. That’s not an activity that is acceptable by any level of notice, and so they’re terminated immediately.”

Alex Eckelberry: “Good. OK.”

Remarkably, TRUSTe’s spokesperson now claims Colin promised termination only when a vendor itself uses exploits, but not when its distributors do so. Reports Vnunet: “‘Colin [O’Malley]’s remarks were specifically about a company that is directly responsible,’ the spokesperson explained. ‘In this case, it was the affiliate that was exploiting the flaw.'”

I’ve read and reread the exchange, and listened repeatedly for good measure. On my interpretation, Colin plainly promised to terminate any vendor whose software is becoming installed through exploits — no matter whether the vendor itself performs the exploit, or whether the exploit is performed by one of the vendor’s distributors. I reach this conclusion for two separate reasons:

1) The plain language of Alex’s question is intentionally inclusive as to who is doing the installation. Notice the broad “that is installing” — vague as to how exactly the installation is occurring.

2) Distributor-perpetrated exploit installs have been standard practice in the “adware” industrry. That’s what I widely observed as to 180solutions, Direct Revenue, eXact Advertising, and so many others. Meanwhile, vendor-perpetrated exploit installs are few and far between — common only among little-known companies, and even then usually comingled with installing third parties’ software. So if Colin had wanted to remark only on the (unusual or unprecedented) vendor-perpetrated exploits, he would have needed to say that specifically.

Perhaps TRUSTe regrets the breadth of Colin’s promise. But Colin made a tough commitment for good reason: As Colin spoke to dozens of anti-spyware researchers already suspicious of Trusted Download, his big promises helped bolster TRUSTe’s credibility. Had Colin told the ASC what now seems to be TRUSTe’s policy — that some exploit-based installs yield only a temporary suspension — I gather Alex would have questioned Colin further to emphasize the need for a tougher response. Other meeting attendees would probably have done the same.

In any event, if Colin’s goal was to build support among anti-spyware researchers, his efforts don’t seem to be succeeding. Eric continues:

Th[is] case was significant in that it was the first big public test of how well TRUSTe would perform when called to defend the standards that allegedly undergird the Trusted Download program. When push came to shove, though, TRUSTe demonstrated itself to be lacking the backbone to deliver on its word. [This is] another illustration of why we at Sunbelt place no value whatsoever in TRUSTe’s whitelisting and certifications.

Added FaceTime’s Chris Boyd:

For Gods sake, when are we going to stop gimping around and actually break out some actual punishments for people? Either kick someone from your program and be done with it, or … just give up already.

TRUSTe’s extreme delay further compromises the standing of Trusted Download: Three weeks elapsed before TRUSTe responded to my documentation and proof of nonconsensual ComScore RelevantKnowledge installations. Throughout that period, the Trusted Download whitelist continued to list RelevantKnowledge — falsely suggesting that RelevantKnowledge was in good standing. Internet users deserve better: When TRUSTe learns of an infraction of such seriousness, all applicable web pages ought to be updated promptly, lest the Internet community mistakenly proceed in reliance on TRUSTe’s supposed diligence.

Spyware Still Cheating Merchants and Legitimate Affiliates updated May 22, 2007

Spyware vendors are trying to clean up their images. For example, Zango settled a FTC investigation, then last week sued PC Tools for detecting and removing Zango software. Meanwhile, Integrated Search Technologies (makers of a variety of software previously widely installed without consent) introduced a new “Vomba” client that even received “provisional” TRUSTe Trusted Download certification.

But these programs’ core designs are unchanged: They still track user behavior, still send browsing to their central servers, and still show pop-up ads — behaviors users rightly disfavor due to serious effects on privacy and productivity.

Putting aside users’ well-known dislike for pop-ups, these programs also continue to interfere with standard online advertising systems. In particular, these programs show ads that overcharge affiliate merchants — especially by claiming commission on organic traffic merchants would have received anyway. This article presents six specific examples, followed by analysis and strategies for enforcement.

The Self-Targeting Scam and an Initial Example: Zango, Roundads, and Performics Claiming Commissions on Blockbuster’s Organic Traffic

Putting spyware vendors’ practices in the best possible light, they perform a comparative advertising function — offering a competitor when a user browses a merchant’s site. But suppose a spyware vendor instead shows a “competitor” that is actually just a commission-earning link to the very site the user had specifically requested. Then, if the user buys from that merchant (through either the original window or the new pop-up, in general), the merchant has to pay a commission to the spyware vendor (or its advertiser or affiliate).

Zango, Roundads, Performics Targeting Blockbuster Zango, Roundads, Performics Targeting Blockbuster

For concreteness, consider the events shown in the screenshot at right and in video. On May 13, my automated testing system browsed Blockbuster. Observing the requested traffic to Blockbuster, Zango opened a popup sending traffic to Roundads redirected to Performics and then back to Blockbuster. To a typical user, this pop-up is easy to ignore — just a second copy of the Blockbuster site, which users had requested in the first place. But the pop-up has serious cost implications for Blockbuster: If the user signs up with Blockbuster, through either window, then Blockbuster concludes it should pay a $18 commission to Roundads via Performics. That’s a sham: Were it not for Zango’s intervention, Blockbuster could have kept the entirety of the user’s subscription fee, without paying any commission at all.

Zango’s activity here doesn’t even meet the definition of advertising (“attracting public attention to a product or business”). After all, the user was already at Blockbuster — and hence can’t be said to have been “attract[ed]” to that site by Zango’s action.

Unless Blockbuster installs Zango’s software and runs its own tests, Blockbuster is likely to conclude (mistakenly) that Roundads has provided a bona fide lead to a new customer. Indeed, since Blockbuster’s preexisting web site visitors are likely to “convert” to buyers at a high rate (compared to visitors who only arrive thanks to advertising), Blockbuster’s advertising metrics (and Performics’ tracking measurements) are likely to consider Roundads an unusually high-quality affiliate thanks to Roundads’ likely high conversion rate. Blockbuster might even pay Roundads a bonus — when in fact this Roundads traffic is worthless.

URL log of the traffic at issue:…………

For more on these self-targeting pop-ups, targeting merchants’ sites with their own affiliate links, see my earlier The Effect of 180solutions on Affiliate Commissions and Merchants (2004).

On these facts, Blockbuster might reasonably blame Roundads — the entity that purchased the traffic from Zango and put in motion the self-targeting scheme. Investigating Roundads’ identity, Blockbuster will notice’s footer — which states that Roundads is one and the same as Thermo Media / Affiliate Fuel, which credit reporting agency Experian acquired in April 2005. (Update, May 22: Joey Flores, Director of Operations for Affiliate Fuel, wrote to me to report that Roundads has no affiliation with Affiliate Fuel, Thermo Media, or Experian. Joey suggests that Roundads “‘borrowed’ from [Thermo Media’s] site design … and their designers got a little copy happy, including [copying] our copyright information on[to] their site.”)

Blockbuster might also blame Performics. Performics specifically touts its affiliate network as offering “cost-effective” advertising. But in this example, the cost was a total waste, yielding no benefit whatsoever. Performics further promises “quality affiliates” — an important benefit to merchants who might not otherwise know which affiliates to accept. But in this instance, by all indications Performics failed to protect Blockbuster from Roundads’ bad actions and improper charges.

Finally, Blockbuster might blame Zango — whose pop-up generating software made it remarkably easy for Roundads to target Blockbuster’s organic traffic.

Example 2: Vomba, Ccg360, Lynxtrack (Hydra Network), Adrevolver (Blue Lithium) Claiming Commissions on Blockbuster’s Organic Traffic

Vomba, Ccg360, Lynxtrack (Hydra), Adrevolver (BlueLithium) Overcharging Blockbuster Vomba, Ccg360, Lynxtrack (Hydra), Adrevolver (BlueLithium)

Blockbuster’s online advertising is widespread, and the preceding example is but one of many schemes that charge Blockbuster commission it ought not have to pay. This section shows another.

In the screenshot shown at right, reflecting testing of May 11, my automated testing system requested the Blockbuster site. Vomba spyware observed that I was at Blockbuster, and sent traffic to Ccg360 (purportedly Nelson Cheung of Markham, Canada). Ccg360 redirected to (Hydra Network of Beverly Hills, California), which redirected to Adrevolver (BlueLithium of San Jose, California) and finally back to Blockbuster.

As in the prior example, the net effect was to claim commission on Blockbuster’s organic traffic. If the user signs up with Blockbuster, Blockbuster will pay a commission to the sequence of companies that forwarded the Vomba-originating traffic. But had those parties not intervened with that pop-up, Blockbuster would still have closed the sale — without incurring a commission expense. So as in the prior example, this is self-targeting, charging Blockbuster a commission without providing any bona fide value in return.

URL log of the traffic at issue:

Example 3: Vomba and LinkShare Claiming Commissions on Netflix’s Organic Traffic

Vomba and LinkShare Claiming Commission on Netflix's Organic Traffic Vomba, LinkShare Claiming Commission on Organic Traffic

Netflix has repeatedly promised to sever ties with spyware vendors, even claiming that incidents that I and others observed were “unique and random.” But through its LinkShare affiliate program, Netflix continues to get ripped off by spyware — needlessly paying commissions to receive the same kind of traffic Netflix long since promised to reject. This section and the three that follow shows four separate examples of such traffic.

In testing of April 11, my automated testing system browsed Netflix. AutoTester found traffic flowing from Vomba to LinkShare, then back to Netflix. URL log:……

Example 4: Look2me, MyGeek (AdOn Network), Tcshoppingdeals, Apluswebdeals, and LinkShare

Look2me, MyGeek (AdOn Network), Tcshoppingdeals, Apluswebdeals, LinkShare Claiming Commissions on Netflix's Organic Traffic Look2me, MyGeek (AdOn Network), Tcshoppingdeals, Apluswebdeals, LinkShare Overcharging Netflix

In testing of April 25, my automated testing system browsed Netflix. AutoTester found traffic flowing from Look2me (from Minnesota-based NicTech Networks) (widely installed without consent) to MyGeek (AdOn Network of Phoenix, Arizona) to Tcshoppingdeals (purportedly of Buffalo, New York) to Apluswebdeals (location unknown) to LinkShare, then back to Netflix. See screenshot at right and video. URL log:…&url=….……

Example 5: Web Nexus, Mediatraffic, Ccg360, and LinkShare

Web Nexus, Mediatraffic, Ccg360, LinkShare Claiming Commissions on Netflix's Organic Traffic Web Nexus, Mediatraffic, Ccg360, LinkShare – Netflix

In testing of May 12, my automated testing system browsed Netflix. AutoTester found traffic flowing from Web Nexus (widely installed without consent) to Mediatraffic (one-and-the-same as Integrated Search Technologies and Vomba) to Ccg360 (purportedly Nelson Cheung of Markham, Canada) to LinkShare, and back to Netflix. See screenshot at right. URL log:…………*SQ&offerid=……

Example 6: Zango, Roundads, and LinkShare

Zango, Roundads, LinkShare Claiming Commission on Netflix's Organic Traffic Zango, Roundads, LinkShare – Netflix

In testing of May 20, my automated testing system browsed Netflix. AutoTester found traffic flowing from Zango to Roundads to LinkShare and back to Netflix. See screenshot, video, and URL log:…………

In each of these four Netflix examples, spyware sent traffic to LinkShare and then onwards to Netflix — all predicated on users first requesting Netflix directly. So as in the two Blockbuster examples, the spyware provides no bona fide advertising benefit. Instead, the spyware vendors simply claim payments from Netflix without providing any service in return — a glaring reason why Netflix should refuse to pay them. Aside from reducing wasteful advertising spending, Netflix might also want to sever these relationships because the underlying spyware imposes serious costs on consumers: Sneaking onto users’ computers, reducing performance, and diminishing both reliability and privacy.

Netflix might reasonably blame LinkShare for the actions of these affiliates. LinkShare specifically touts its “high quality network” with “better affiliates,” whereas these affiliates are the very opposite of high quality. Furthermore, LinkShare prominently claims its service is “cost-efficient” — even as these examples entail Netflix paying for traffic it could have received for free.

Additional Examples on File

The preceding five examples are only a portion of my recent records of spyware advertising fraud and of other spyware advertising. My AutoTester collects dozens of examples per day, and I’ve documented literally hundreds of rogue affiliates during the past year — including dozens of affiliates through each of Commission Junction, LinkShare, and Performics, as well as various affiliates using smaller networks. Any affiliate merchant without a specific plan for detecting and blocking spyware-originating traffic is virtually certain to be receiving — and paying for — this bogus self-targeting spyware-originating traffic.

Winners and Losers

The clearest effect of self-targeting pop-ups is to overcharge merchants. Self-targeting pop-ups ask merchants to pay affiliate commissions on their organic traffic — traffic they should receive for free, thanks to advertising in other media, word of mouth, and repeat buyers. But if merchants fail to take action to protect themselves, they needlessly pay commissions on this organic traffic. Merchants then also pay affiliate network fees and, often, affiliate manager fees too — making the waste that much larger.

Secondarily, self-targeting pop-ups skim commissions from other affiliates. Consider a bona fide rule-following affiliate sending traffic to a targeted merchant. If a spyware self-targeting pop-up intercedes to drop its own affiliate cookies, it overwrites the cookies of the initial affiliate. Affiliate merchants pay commissions on a “last cookie wins” basis — so the first affiliate gets nothing, even though its link truly sent the user to the merchant’s site and actually put the sale in motion. (Examples: 1, 2, 3, 4)

But self-targeting does have beneficiaries. The clearest beneficiaries are the spyware vendors that show self-targeting pop-ups — whether showing these ads directly (with the spyware vendor acting as an affiliate) or indirectly (with some affiliate buying spyware traffic and sending it onwards to a network and a merchant). The resulting revenues fund spyware vendors’ infections, installations, and other expenses.

At least in the short run, self-targeting also benefits affiliate networks. Affiliate networks typically charge merchants a percentage of each commissionable sale. So the more commissions a merchant pays out, the higher the revenues of the merchant’s network. Self-targeting pop-ups convert non-commissionable organic traffic into supposedly-commissionable supposedly-affiliate-originating traffic — expanding networks’ fee base. In the long run, self-targeting fraud could reduce merchants’ interest in affiliate marketing, but in the short run it provides networks with additional revenue. This conflict surely explains at least a portion of networks’ failure to effectively eliminate self-targeting spyware. (Further discussion.)

Nonetheless, I’ve long thought that self-targeting and other spyware traffic present a substantial opportunity for networks seeking to offer increased value to sophisticated merchants. A savvy network could stand behind the quality of its affiliates, exercising real diligence in catching fraud and in protecting merchants from the risk of wasteful, unnecessary payments. Networks can implement protections more efficiently and at lower cost than merchants, because networks can kick out affiliates across their entire network, rather than merely from a single a single merchant’s program. That said, to date the largest three affiliate networks all still receive substantial spyware-originating traffic, including self-targeting traffic.

Revenue Counterfactual

The self-targeting profit opportunity ultimately arises out of mismeasurement of merchants’ own traffic. Networks’ tracking systems encourage merchants to consider the counterfactual labeled #1 in the diagram at right — comparing the sales they made (point C in the diagram) against the supposed counterfactual of not paying commissions and hence not receiving the specified sales (point A). That’s the right comparison for many kinds of advertising, but in these self-targeting examples, it’s entirely misguided. Here, the only appropriate comparison is #2 — comparing the sale that was made with payment of the specified commission (C), versus the very same sale without any commission (B). The difference is stark: In #1, the merchant is pleased to have made a sale at a reasonable marketing expense. But in #2, the true state of affairs, the merchant is paying out commissions without any business benefit whatsoever.

Responses & Next Steps

In Netflix’s 2007 Q1 earnings call, CFO Barry McCarthy noted that Netflix’s recent “word-of-mouth subscriber growth was weak.” There are multiple plausible explanations for that change, but advertising fraud is an important additional factor to consider: In the examples set out above, Netflix would mistakenly pay Look2me, Vomba, Web Nexus, and Zango even if a consumer in fact signed up thanks to a word-of-mouth recommendation rather than as a result of those vendors’ advertising. With marketing costs already consuming more than 23% of Netflix’s revenues, any reduction seems both overdue and welcome.

What will Netflix, Blockbuster, and other affiliate merchants do in response to these examples? One immediate action item is to sever their ties with the specific affiliates I have identified. Merchants could also demand repayment of any commissions previously paid out — a challenging task with small affiliates, but probably possible for some larger affiliates.

More generally, merchants must decide how to protect themselves from the many cheating affiliates not reported here. As usual (1, 2), I think the answer is auditing and enforcement. Merchants can run tests themselves, hire a consulting service (like AffiliateFairPlay), or build an automating testing system to find violations. But ignoring these scams is unpalatable because inaction means wasting merchants’ advertising budgets, penalizing rule-following affiliates, and helping support spyware vendors.

Introducing the Automatic Spyware Advertising Tester

I’ve repeatedly shown how spyware programs claim commissions from affiliate merchants. If spyware programs and their affiliates truthfully labeled the resulting traffic as coming from spyware, networks and merchants could reject that traffic — avoiding showing merchants’ sites in unwanted pop-ups, and refusing to pay commissions on any sales that result. But in practice, spyware affiliates’ traffic is not labeled as such, and is therefore hard to separate from legitimate affiliates. With hundreds of different affiliates reselling spyware-originating traffic, even the most determined merchants face difficulty in finding all their bad affiliates.

In How Affiliate Programs Fund Spyware (September 2005), I offered one way merchants and networks can uncover spyware-using affiliates: Hands-on testing. Infect a set of computers (or virtual machines) with spyware, browse the web, and track what happens. If an affiliate is found buying spyware traffic, then punish that affiliate by refusing to pay it commissions it purportedly “earned,” or even by demanding repayment of prior-period commissions.

For more than three years, I’ve run extensive hands-on tests of spyware programs, in large part to observe and record what ads were shown. But as I take on new obligations, hands-on testing becomes infeasible.

Earlier this year, I wrote a program I call the “Automatic Spyware Advertising Tester” (“AutoTester”). On a set of virtual machines infected with a variety of spyware, the AutoTester browses a set of test scenarios — viewing web pages, running searches, and even adding items to shopping carts at retailers’ sites. The AutoTester keeps a full log of what happens — including a video of what pop-ups appear, and a packet log of what network transmissions occur. If the AutoTester observes any improper traffic (such as an unexpected and unrequested affiliate link), it records that event in a log file, and it tags the video and packet log accordingly.

The AutoTester has already proven helpful for finding bad affiliates (like the six affiliates I present in today’s Spyware Still Cheating Merchants and Legitimate Affiliates, among dozens of others). But the AutoTester can equally well detect other kinds of advertising fraud. I’ve recently used the AutoTester to record widespread click fraud against “second-tier” PPC vendors, and to monitor the sequences of redirects behind syndicated display advertising. The AutoTester can even test for cookie-stuffing. So it’s a handy addition to my toolkit and an efficient way to reduce time-consuming hands-on tests. Look for more automatically-generated reports in the future.

US patent pending.

How Spyware-Driven Forced Visits Inflate Web Site Traffic Counts

The usual motive for buying spyware popup traffic is simple: Showing ads. Cover Netflix’s site with an ad for Blockbuster, and users may buy from Blockbuster instead. Same for other spyware advertisers.

But there are other plausible reasons to buy spyware traffic. In particular, cheap spyware traffic can be used to inflate a site’s traffic statistics. Buying widespread “forced visits” causes widely-used traffic measurements to overreport a site’s popularity: Traffic measurements mistakenly assume users arrived at the site because they actually wanted to go there, without considering the possibility that the visit was involuntary. Nonetheless, from the site’s perspective, forced visits offer real benefits: Investors will be willing to pay more to buy a site that seems to be more popular, and advertisers may be willing to pay more for their ads to appear. In some sectors, higher reported traffic may create a buzz of supposed popularity — helping to recruit bona fide users in the future.

Yet spyware-originating forced-visit traffic can cause serious harm. Harm may accrue to advertisers — by overcharging them as well as by placing their ads in spyware they seek to avoid. Harm may accrue to investors, by causing them to overpay for sites whose true popularity is less than traffic statistics indicate. In any event, harm accrues to consumers and to the public at large, through funding of spyware that sneaks onto users’ PCs with negative effects on privacy, reliability, and performance.

Others have previously investigated some of these problems. In December 2006, the New York Times reported that Nielsen/NetRatings cut traffic counts for by 65% after uncovering widespread forced site visits. But forced-visit traffic is more widespread than the four specific examples the Times presented.

This article offers six further examples of sites receiving forced visits — including the spyware vendors and ad networks that are involved. The article concludes by analyzing implications — suggested policy responses for advertisers and ad networks, as well as ways of detecting sites receiving forced visits.

Example 1: IE Plugin and Paypopup Promoting

IE Plugin Promoting IE Plugin Promoting

In testing of April 23, I browsed Google and received the popunder shown at right (after activation) and in video. Packet log analysis reveals that traffic flowed as follows: From IE Plugin (purportedly of Belize), to Paypopup (of Ontario, Canada), to Paypopup’s ad server, to Bolt (of New York). URLs in the sequence:…………&siteid=iepl…

As shown in the packet log, this traffic originated with IE Plugin’s Adcycle.cgi ad-loader. This ad-loader sends traffic to a variety of ad networks, as best I can tell without any targeting whatsoever. Users therefore receive numerous untargeted ad windows, typically appearing as popups and popunders.

The resulting Bolt window appears without any attribution or branding indicating what spyware caused it to appear. This lack of labeling makes it particularly hard for users to figure out what program is responsible or to take action to stop further unwanted ads. IE Plugin’s unlabeled ads are particularly harmful because users may not have authorized the installation of IE Plugin in the first place: I have repeatedly seen IE Plugin install without user consent, including via bundles assembled by notorious spyware distributor Dollar Revenue.

The packet log indicates that Bolt purchased traffic not from IE Plugin directly, but rather from Paypopup. But Paypopup’s name and product descriptions specifically indicate the kind of ads that Paypopup sells forced visits — popups that appear without an affirmative end-user choice. The inevitable result of such traffic purchases is to inflate the measured popularity of the beneficiary web sites. So even if Bolt did not know it was buying spyware-originating advertising, Bolt must have known it was receiving forced visit traffic.

The packet log also shows that Paypopup specifically knew it was doing business with IE Plugin. Notice the repeated references to IE Plugin in the Paypopup and Multi-pops ad-loader URLs (“id=ieplugin”).

Bolt’s “About” page includes a claim of “reach[ing] 14.9 million unique visitors each month.” Taking this claim at face value, Bolt’s relationship with Paypopup and IE Plugin begs the question: How many of Bolt’s visitors are forced to see Bolt because spyware took them there, rather than because they affirmatively chose it?

Meanwhile, Bolt boasts top-tier advertisers including Verizon (shown in part in the screenshot above), Coca-Cola, Nike, and Sony. These brand-conscious advertisers are unlikely to want their ads to appear through spyware-delivered popups.

Example 2: Yourenhancement, Adtegrity, Right Media Exchange, and AdOn Network (MyGeek) Promoting PureVideo Networks’ GrindTV

Yourenhancement Promoting GrindTV Yourenhancement Promoting GrindTV

In testing of April 29, I browsed the web and received the full-screen popup shown at right. The popup was so large and so intrusive that it even covered the Start Menu, Taskbar, and System Tray — preventing me from easily switching to another program.

Packet log analysis reveals that traffic flowed as follows: From Yourenhancement (of Los Angeles), to Adtegrity (of Grand Rapids, Michigan), to the Right Media Exchange, to AdOn Network (previously MyGeek/Cpvfeed) (of Phoenix, Arizona) to Grind TV (of El Segundo, California). URLs in the sequence:……….………

Yourenhancement’s display.php3 ad-loader sends traffic to a variety of ad networks, by all indications without any targeting whatsoever. Users therefore receive numerous untargeted popups and popunders. As in the prior example, the resulting window lacks any branding to indicate what spyware caused it to appear or how users can prevent future popups from the same source.

Yourenhancement’s unlabled ads are particularly harmful because users may not have authorized the installation of Yourenhancement in the first place: I have repeatedly seen Yourenhancement install without user consent — including in bundles assembled by DollarRevenue, in WMF exploits served from ExitExchange, in misleading ActiveX bundles packaged by IE Plugin, and in a CoolWebSearch exploit served from Runeguide.

The packet log indicates that GrindTV purchased traffic not from Fullcontext directly, but rather from AdOn Network. However, advertising professionals should know that buying advertising from AdOn Network inevitably means receiving traffic from spyware. For example, Direct Revenue’s site previously disclosed that Direct Revenue shows AdOn ads, while AdOn’s site admitted showing ads through both Direct Revenue (“OfferOptimizer”) and Zango (180solutions). My site has repeatedly covered AdOn’s role in spyware placements (1, 2, 3, 4). I continue to observe traffic flowing directly to MyGeek from various spyware installed without user consent, including Look2me and Targetsaver. With voluminous documentation freely available, advertisers cannot reasonably claim not to know what kind of ads AdOn sells.

The GrindTV site is operated by PureVideo Networks. I have previously seen spyware-originating forced visits to other PureVideo sites, including and

PureVideo’s “News” page specifically touts the company’s reported popularity (“among top 10 US video sites by market share”, “top growing sites”, “StupidVideos Climb Charts”, etc.). In March, ComScore even announced that PureVideo sites were the ninth-fastest growing properties on the web. But in that same month, I observed widespread forced-visit promotion of multiple PureVideo sites. Forced visits can easily cause a dramatic traffic jump — the same occurrence ComScore reported. It’s hard to know whether PureVideo’s forced visits inflated ComScore’s measurements of PureVideo’s popularity, but that seems like a plausible possibility, particularly in light of Nielsen/NetRatings’ 2006 cut of Entrepreneur’s traffic (after Entrepreneur had used similar tactics).

PureVideo’s Investors & Advisors page indicates that PureVideo has received outside investment, including a $5.6 million investment from SoftBank Capital.

Example 3: Yourenhancement, Adtegrity, Right Media Exchange, and AdOn Network (MyGeek) Promoting

Yourenhancement Promoting GrindTV Yourenhancement Promoting Broadcaster

In testing of April 29, I browsed the web and received the popup shown at right.

Packet log analysis reveals that traffic flowed as follows: From Yourenhancement (widely installed without consent, as set out above) to Adtegrity, to the Right Media Exchange, to AdOn Network to Broadcaster (of Las Vegas). URLs in the sequence:……….……………

As in the preceding example, traffic originated with Yourenhancement’s display.php3 ad-loader, and lacked any branding to indicate its source. The preceding example reports some of the many contexts in which Yourenhancement has become installed on my test PCs without my consent.

The packet log indicates that GrindTV purchased traffic from AdOn. But as the preceding example explains, Broadcaster should reasonably have known that buying traffic from AdOn means receiving forced-visit traffic as well as spyware-originating traffic.

Broadcaster has recently issued press releases to promote its increased traffic (“Broadcaster traffic rankings soar … one of the fastest growing online entertaining communities”; “88% increase in month-over-month website traffic”; “Tremendous audience growth”; etc.). So Broadcaster clearly views its traffic statistics as important. Yet nowhere in Broadcaster’s press releases does Broadcaster mention that its reported visitor counts include visitors who arrived involuntarily.

Broadcaster is a publicly traded company (OTC: BCSR.OB). Broadcaster’s December 2006 SEC 10KSB/A disclosure does briefly discuss Broadcaster’s purchase of “online advertisements … to attract new users” to its service. But the word “advertisements” tends to suggest mere solicitations (e.g. banner ads), not full impressions that cause a loading of Broadcaster’s site (and hence a tick in reported traffic figures). In my review of this and other Broadcaster financial documents, I could find no direct admission that Broadcaster buys cheap forced visits, then counts those involuntary visits towards records of site popularity. It appears that investors may be buying shares in Broadcaster without understanding the true origins of at least some of Broadcaster’s traffic.

This is not Broadcaster’s first run-in with spyware. Broadcaster’s Accessmedia subsidiary was named as a co-defendant in FTC and Washington Attorney General 2006 suits against Movieland et al., alleging that defendants’ software “barrages consumers’ computers with pop-up windows demanding payment to make the pop-ups go away.” According to the FTC’s complaint, Broadcaster’s Accessmedia subsidiary served as the registrant and technical contact for, and also shared telephone numbers and customer service with Movieland.

Example 4: Web Nexus Promoting Orbitz’s

Web Nexus Promoting Orbitz's Web Nexus Promoting Orbitz’s

In testing of April 29, I browsed the web and received the full-screen popup shown at right. As in Example 2, the popup even covered the Start Menu, Taskbar, and System Tray — preventing me from easily switching to another program. Meanwhile, the ad appeared substantially unlabeled — with a small Web Nexus caption at ad bottom, but with the caption’s letters more than half off-screen.

Packet log analysis reveals that traffic flowed as follows: From Web Nexus (purportedly of Bosnia and Herzegovina) directly to Orbitz’s URLs in the sequence:……

The packet log indicates that received traffic directly from Web Nexus. Web Nexus is well-known to be unwanted advertising software: The first page of Google search results for “Web Nexus” includes five references to spyware, four to adware, one to viruses, and six to user complaints seeking assistance with removal. I have personally observed Web Nexus becoming installed through a WMF exploit and through the DollarRevenue bundler, among other methods.

Orbitz’s popup provides three distinct business benefits to Orbitz. First, the popup promotes Orbitz’s own services (e.g. its hotel booking services). Second, the popup promotes Orbitz’s advertisers (here, Verizon, despite Verizon’s repeatedlystated policy of not advertising through spyware). Finally, the popup inflates traffic statistics to — likely increasing advertisers’ future willingness to pay for ads at

Example 5: WebBuying and Exit Exchange Promoting Roo TV

WebBuying Promoting Roo TV WebBuying Promoting Roo TV

In testing of April 23, I browsed the web and received the full-screen popup shown at right. As in Example 2 and 4, the popup covered the Start Menu, Taskbar, and System Tray, and lacked readable labeling of its source.

Packet log analysis reveals that traffic flowed as follows: From WebBuying (a newer variant of Web Nexus) to ExitExchange to Roo TV. URLs in the sequence:…

The packet log indicates that Roo TV received traffic directly from Exit Exchange — traffic that Exit Exchange reasonably should have known would include spyware-originating traffic. Exit Exchange widely receives spyware-originating traffic, passing from a variety of spyware to Exit Exchange, and onwards to Exit Exchange’s advertisers. (For example, in June 2006 I showed Exit Exchange receiving traffic from Surf Sidekick spyware, widely installed without consent. Meanwhile, SiteAdvisor rates Exit Exchange red for delivering exploits to users’ PCs — behavior I documented in February 2006 and observed twice last week alone.)

The Roo TV landing page URL leaves no doubt that Roo TV knew it was receiving forced visits. Notice the “channel-pop” tag in the URL log above — specifically conceding that the traffic at issue was not requested by users.

Roo TV’s “About” page reveals Roo’s emphasis on traffic quantity: The page’s first sentence boasts that “Roo is consistently ranked as one of the world’s ten most viewed online video networks.” But, as in the preceding examples, forced visits raise questions about how Roo got so popular. Is Roo a top-ten site in users’ minds, or only a destination users are frequently forced to visit, against their wishes?

Example 6: WebBuying Promoting

WebBuying Promoting WebBuying Promoting

In testing of April 23, WebBuying also served a full-screen popup of — again covering the Start Menu, Taskbar, and System Tray, and again lacking readable labeling to disclose its source. Screen-capture video.

Packet log analysis reveals that traffic flowed from WebBuying directly to Diet:…

As in the example, receives several benefits from this popup: Promoting its own content, showing ads for third parties (here, Nutrisystem), and inflating its traffic statistics.

Alexa’s traffic statistics show a 5x+ jump in Diet traffic in early March — the same period in which I began observing forced visits to

Additional Examples on File

The preceding six examples are only a portion of my recent records of spyware-originating forced-visit I have recently observed. Under euphemisms that range from “audience development” to “push traffic,” these tactics have become widespread and, by all indications, continue to grow. I have seen other popups from each of these sites on numerous other occasions, and I have seen similar popups from other sites delivered via similar methods.

Implications & Policy Responses

Video sites are strikingly prevalent in the preceding examples and in other forced-visit traffic I have observed. Why? Google’s $1.65 billion acquisition of YouTube inspired others hoping to receive even a fraction of YouTube’s valuation. So far no competitor has gained much traction. But the expectation that video sites grow virally creates an incentive to try to jump-start traffic by any means possible — even spyware-originating traffic.

When forced-visit sites show ads, they tend to promote well-known advertisers. For example, two of the preceding examples (1, 4) feature Verizon, despite Verizon’s stated policy against spyware advertising. While concerned advertisers have generally added anti-spyware policies to their ad contracts, they still tend to ignore the problem of web sites buying spyware traffic. Verizon staff will probably take the position that it is not permissible for a Verizon ad to be shown in a site that receives widespread spyware traffic. But then Verizon’s ad contracts and other policy statements probably need to say so. Same for ad networks seeking to avoid reselling spyware inventory. In practice, few ad policies prohibit intermediary sites buying spyware-originating traffic.

Low-cost spyware-originating traffic can vastly increase a site’s reported popularity. Consider Alexa’s plot of Roo TV traffic. During April 2007 (when I first began to observe spyware-originating forced visits of Roo TV), Alexa reports that Roo’s reach and page views both jumped by an order of magnitude. It is difficult to know how much of this jump results from spyware-originating forced-visit traffic — rather than other kinds of forced visits, or conceivably bona fide user interest. But the New York Times piece reported that when ComScore last year adjusted Entrepreneur’s statistics to account for forced visits, traffic was reduced by 65%. A similar reduction may be required for the sites set out above.

When forced-visit sites show banner ads, the sites raise many of the same concerns as banner farms — including overwhelming advertising, unrequested popups, automatic reloads, opaque resale of spyware-originating traffic, and an overall bad value to advertisers. Particularly prominent among spyware-delivered banner farms is India Broadcast Live’s Smashits — which buys widespread spyware-originating forced-visit traffic, and shows as many as six different banner ads in a page that otherwise lacks substantial content. In some instances, Smashits’ page hijacks users’ browsers: Spyware removes the page a user had requested, and instead shows only the Smashits site. (Video example.) These practices may lead concerned advertisers and ad networks to avoid doing business with Smashits, including Smashits’ many alter egos and secondary domain names. But at present, Smashits continues to show ads from top advertisers and ad networks (particularly FastClick, Google, and TribalFusion). Same for other banner farms still in operation.


Sophisticated advertisers and ad networks rightly want to know which sites are buying spyware-originating forced-click traffic. But they can’t answer that question merely by examining individual sites: Bolt, GrindTV, and kin all look like ordinary sites, without any obvious sign that they get traffic from spyware. So advertisers and networks’ can’t catch spyware-originating traffic. using their usual techniques for evaluating publishers (such as browsing publishers’ sites in search of explicit or offensive materials).

Advertisers and ad networks might look for unusual changes in sites’ reported traffic rank — on the view that extreme spikes probably indicate forced-visit traffic. But there can be legitimate reasons for traffic spikes. Furthermore, an unexpected traffic jump will often prove an insufficient reason to block a prospective advertising relationship. Finally, if advertisers and ad networks distrusted sites with traffic spikes, sites could start their forced-click campaigns more gradually, to avoid tell-tale jumps. So checking for traffic spikes is not a sustainable strategy.

With help from traffic measurement vendors, advertisers and ad networks could attempt to measure visit length rather than visit count. But even visit length measurement might not prevent miscounting of spyware-originating forced visits. Some spyware opens sites off-screen — where JavaScript or other code could extend traffic indefinitely to inflate measured visit length as needed, without users noticing and closing the resulting windows.

The only robust way to detect spyware-originating forced visits is through testing of actual spyware-infected PCs — by watching their behavior and seeing what sites they show. Historically, I’ve done this testing manually, as in the examples set out above. Fortunately, detecting widespread spyware-originating traffic is easy — because, by hypothesis, the traffic is common and hence likely to appear even in brief testing. That said, a scalable automated system might be preferable to my hands-on testing. I’ve recently built an automatic tester that performs this function, among others. I’ll describe it more in a coming piece. US patent pending.

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.

Current Ask Toolbar Practices

Last year I documented Ask toolbars installing without consent as well as installing by targeting kids. Ask staff admitted both practices are unacceptable, and Ask promised to make them stop. Unfortunately, Ask has not succeeded.

In today’s post, I report notable current Ask practices. I show Ask ads running on kids sites and in various noxious spyware, specifically contrary to Ask’s prior promises. I document yet another installation of Ask’s toolbar that occurs without user notice or consent. I point out why Ask’s toolbar is inherently objectionable — especially its rearrangement of users’ browsers and its excessive pay-per-click ads to the effective exclusion of ordinary organic links. I compare Ask’s practices with its staff’s promises and with governing law — especially “deceptive door opener” FTC precedent, prohibiting misleading initial statements even where clarified by subsequent statements.


Current Practices of IAC/Ask Toolbars

Certifications and Site Trustworthiness

When a stranger promises “you can trust me,” most people know to be extra vigilant. What conclusion should users draw when a web site touts a seal proclaiming its trustworthiness? Some sites that are widely regarded as extremely trustworthy present such seals. But those same seals feature prominently on sites that seek to scam users — whether through spyware infections, spam, or other unsavory practices.

It’s no great surprise that bad actors seek to free-ride on sites users rightly trust. Suppose users have seen a seal on dozens of sites that turn out to be legitimate. Dubious sites can present that same seal to encourage more users to buy, register, or download.

But certification issuers don’t have to let this happen. They could develop and enforce tough rules, so that every site showing a seal is a site users aren’t likely to regret visiting. Unfortunately, certification don’t always live up to this ideal. Writing tough rules isn’t easy, and enforcing them is even harder. Hard-hitting rules are particularly unlikely when certification authorities get paid for each certification they issue — but get nothing for rejecting an applicant.

Today I’m posting Adverse Selection in Online “Trust” Authorities, an empirical look at the best-known certification authority, TRUSTe. I cross-reference TRUSTe’s ratings with the findings of SiteAdvisor — where robots check web site downloads for spyware, and submit single-use addresses into email forms to check for spam, among other automated and manual tests. Of course SiteAdvisor data isn’t perfect either, but if SiteAdvisor says a site is bad news, while TRUSTe gives it a seal, most users are likely to side with SiteAdvisor. (Full disclosure: I’m on SiteAdvisor’s advisory board. But SiteAdvisor’s methodology speaks for itself.)

(update, July 2009: I have posted a revised version of Adverse Selection in Online “Trust” Authorities, as published in the Proceedings of ICEC’09)

What do I find? In short, nothing good. I examine a sampling of 500,000+ top web sites, as reported by a major ISP. Of the sites certified by TRUSTe, 5.4% are untrustworthy according to SiteAdvisor’s data, compared with just 2.5% untrustworthy sites in the rest of the ISP’s list. So TRUSTe-certified sites are more than twice as likely to be untrustworthy. This result also holds in a regression framework controlling for site popularity (traffic rank) and even a basic notion of site type.

Particularly persuasive are some specific sites TRUSTe has certified as trustworthy, although in my experience typical users would disagree. I specifically call out four sites certified by TRUSTe as of January 2006:

  • – Makes advertising software known to become installed without consent. Tracks what web sites users visit, and shows pop-up ads. Historically, blocks many attempts at removal, automatically reinstalls itself, and deletes certain other programs from users’ PCs. Faces litigation by the New York Attorney General plus consumer class actions.
  • – This site, among other toolbar distribution points, installs a toolbar into users’ web browsers when users install smileys, screensavers, cursors, or other trinkets. Moves a user’s Address Bar to the right side of the browser, such that typing an address into the standard top-left box performs a search rather than a direct navigation. Promotes its toolbar in ads shown by other vendors’ spyware.
  • – Offers users “free” gifts if they complete numerous sequential partner offers. Privacy policy allows sharing of user’ email addresses and other information with third parties. In testing, providing an email address to yielded a total of 485 distinct e-mails per week, from a wide variety of senders.
  • – Makes online tracking software, which I have personally observed is often installed without consent. Monitors what web sites users visit, and sends this information to Webhancer’s servers.

This is an academic article — ultimately likely to be a portion of my Ph.D. dissertation. So it’s mathematical in places where that’s likely to be helpful (to some readers, at least), and it’s not as accessible as most of my work. But for those who are concerned about online safety, it may be worth a read. Feedback welcomed.

In its response to my article, TRUSTe points out that Direct Revenue and Maxmoolah no longer hold TRUSTe certifications. True. But Maxmoolah was certified for 13+ months (from February 2005 through at least March 2006), and Direct Revenue was certified for at least 8 months (from April 2005 or earlier, through at least January 2006). These companies’ practices were bad all along. TRUSTe need not have certified them in the first place.

TRUSTe then claims that its own web site made an “error” in listing FunWebProducts as a member. TRUSTe does not elaborate as to how it made so fundamental a mistake — reporting that a site has been certified when it has not. TRUSTe’s FunWebProducts error was compounded by the apparent additional inclusion of numerous other near-identical properties (Cursormania, Funbuddyicons, Historyswatter, Mymailstationery, Smileycentral, Popularscreensavers). TRUSTe’s error is particularly troubling because at least some of the erroneously-listed sites were listed as certified for 17 months or longer (from May 2005 or earlier, through at least September 12, when Google last crawled TRUSTe’s member list).

As to Webhancer, TRUSTe claims further tests (part of TRUSTe’s Trusted Download program) will confirm the company’s practices. But that’s little benefit to consumers who currently see Webhancer’s seal and mistakenly conclude TRUSTe has already conducted an appropriate review of Webhancer’s products, when in fact it has not. Meanwhile, I have personally repeatedly observed Webhancer’s bad installation practices day in and day out — including widespread nonconsensual installations by the notorious Dollar Revenue, among others. These observations are trivial to reproduce, yet Webhancer remains a TRUSTe certificate holder to this day.

Consumers deserve certifications that are correctly issued in the first place — not merely revoked after months or years of notorious misbehavior, and not mistakenly listed as having been issued when in fact they were not. TRUSTe is wrong to focus on the few specific examples I chose to highlight. The problem with TRUSTe’s approach is more systemic, as indicated by the many other dubious TRUSTe-certified sites analyzed in my dataset but not called out by name in my paper or appendix.

Consider some of the other unsavory sites TRUSTe has certified:

  • TRUSTe certifies numerous sites that most users would call spammers — like (which sends users 320+ emails per week, in SiteAdvisor’s tests), (147 emails per week), and (86). All three of these sites remain TRUSTe members listed on TRUSTe’s current member list.
  • TRUSTe continues to certify, which offers a “free” credit report that actually costs users $12.95/month if they don’t remember to cancel — a practice so misleading it prompted FTC litigation.
  • TRUSTe has certified Hotbar (now owned by 180solutions) and Hotbar’s site — advertising software that tracks users’ browsing and shows extra pop-ups.
  • In January 2005, mere days after I reported eZula’s advertising software becoming installed without consent, TRUSTe’s newsletter specifically touted its certification of eZula.
  • TRUSTe even certified Gratis Internet, which was revealed to have sold 7.2 million users’ names, email addresses, home phone numbers, and street addresses, in specific violation of its privacy policy.

TRUSTe’s response claims that my conclusions somehow reflect SiteAdvisor idiosyncrasies. I disagree. I can’t imagine any reasonable, informed consumer wanting to do business with sites like these. TRUSTe can do better, and in the future, I hope it will.

I’m sometimes asked where I’m headed, personally and professionally. Posting a new academic article offers an appropriate occasion to explain. I’m still working on my economics Ph.D., having drafted several papers about pay-per-click advertising (bidding strategies, efficiency, revenue comparisons), with more in the pipeline. After that? An academic job might be a good fit, though that’s not the only option. Here too, I’d welcome suggestions.

Which Anti-Spyware Programs Delete Which Cookies?

I’ve always been puzzled by the divergent attitudes of anti-spyware programs towards advertising cookies. Some anti-spyware programs take their criticism to the extreme, with terms like “spy cookies” and serious overstatements of the alleged harm from cookies. Others ignore cookies altogether. In between are some interesting alternatives — like ignoring cookies by default (but with optional detection), giving users an easy way to hide cookie detections, and flagging cookies as “low risk” detections.

I understand why some users are concerned about cookies. It’s odd and, at first, surprising that “just” visiting a web site can deposit files on a user’s hard disk. Cookies are often hard or impossible to read by hand, and ad networks’ cookies offer user no direct benefit.

Unrequested arrival, no benefit to users — sounds a lot like spyware? So say some, including the distinguished Walt Mossberg. But that’s actually not my view. Unlike the spyware I focus on, cookies don’t interrupt users with extra ads, don’t slow users’ PCs, can’t crash, and require only trivial bandwidth, memory, and CPU time.

Cookies do have some privacy consequences — especially when they integrate users’ behavior on multiple sites. But such tracking only occurs to the extent that the respective sites allow it — an important check on the scope of such practices. That’s not to say shared cookies can’t be objectionable, but to my eye these concerns are small compared with more pressing threats to online privacy (like search engine data retention). Plus, ad networks usually address privacy worries through privacy policies limiting how users’ data may be used.

All in all, I don’t think cookies raise many serious concern for typical users. Still, I know and respect others who hold contrary views. It seems reasonable people can disagree on this issue, especially on the harder cases posed by certain shared cookies.

Earlier this summer, Vinny Lingham and Clicks2Customers asked me to test the current state of cookie detections by major anti-spyware programs. They had noticed that for those anti-spyware programs that detect cookies, not all cookies are equally affected. Which cookies are most affected? By which anti-spyware programs? I ran tests to see — forming a suite of cookies, then scanning them with the leading anti-spyware programs.

Vinny is generously letting me share my results with others who are interested. The details:

Cookies Detected by Anti-Spyware Programs: The Current Status

See also Vinny’s introduction and commentary.