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Turning Adware into Shameware

A D.C.-based non-profit public interest group is kicking off a multipart campaign designed to spotlight companies who pay to advertise their products via software that is often installed without the user's full knowledge or consent.

The Center for Democracy and Technology today released the names of nearly a dozen companies who are among the biggest customers of 180solutions, a Bellevue, Wash., adware maker whose storied history with unauthorized installations has been the subject of numerous Security Fix blog posts and other articles.

CDT sent letters to the chief executives of 18 of 180solutions' biggest advertisers, asking if they were aware that pop-up ads for their products were being displayed by the adware. Of those 18, only seven companies bothered to respond, the CDT says.

Among those companies that ignored the letters are some of the more prolific Web advertisers, including online matchmaking companies True.com and PerfectMatch.com; dial-up Internet service providers NetZero and PeoplePC; as well as ProFlowers.com, GreetingCards.com, uBid, LetsTalk.com, Club Med Americas, outfitter Altrec.com and self-help publisher Waterfront Media.

CDT's report comes just a few weeks after the group wrapped up the first annual meeting of the Anti-Spyware Coalition, which it heads. At that conference, Jonathan Leibowitz, the lone Democrat on the Federal Trade Commission, remarked that relationships between advertisers, affiliates and third-party marketers has become so disjointed and confusing that many large corporations may no realize they are paying for their ads to be displayed through software that in many cases has shown to have been installed through security flaws or outright fraud.

Leibowitz said publicly naming those companies "that are fueling the nuisance adware problem I believe could help quite a bit. Sometimes a little public shaming can go a long way."

Whether they know it or not, companies like True.com and NetZero are fueling the spread of unwanted programs that clog people's computers, threaten privacy and tarnish the Internet experience for millions, said Ari Schwartz, CDT's deputy director.

"Because the adware financing model is willfully convoluted, many companies may not know where their advertising dollars are ending up," Schwartz said in a statement. "We're urging those advertisers to be more vigilant to ensure that they aren't unwittingly bankrolling one ofthe Internet's fastest-growing problems."

One excellent illustration of how disconnected companies can be from their online-ad deliverers comes from online DVD rental firm Netflix, whose ads CDT found also were being displayed by 180solutions software. Netflix, however, did respond to CDT's inquiry and said the ads were apparently in violation of its own policy, which expressly forbids the display of ads through any adware or spyware programs.

Netflix said the example furnished by CDT was unique and random, and that its ads would henceforth cease to be served by 180's adware. CDT said that within hours of receiving that response, it found three more examples of Netflix ads generated by adware programs.

By Brian Krebs  |  March 20, 2006; 11:15 AM ET
Categories:  From the Bunker , Safety Tips  
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