Web Advertisers Settle N.Y. Spyware Lawsuit
Three of the most aggressive buyers of online advertising space today agreed to pay fines and reform their advertising practices as part of a landmark anti-spyware settlement.
Mobile phone giant Cingular Wireless LLC, and travel sites Priceline.com and Travelocity.com agreed to settle their part in an ongoing investigation by the New York State Attorney General's office, which last year sued adware/spyware purveyor DirectRevenue for deceptively and fraudulently installing its pop-up ad serving and Web tracking software on millions of PCs without approval or consent of consumers.
This is an important settlement on a number of levels. Online help forums are awash in desperate messages from consumers whose machines were besieged by pop-up ads after visiting a Web site that used slimy drive-by tactics to install DirectRevenue's software, which is notoriously difficult to remove from a host machine. If you've never read the evidence against DirectRevenue's business practices (this is a company that, according to prosecutors, actually had a department named "Dark Arts"), check out this document for a very entertaining and revealing read.
Perhaps more significantly, these advertisers were just as culpable for supporting DirectRevenue's sleazy business practices long after anti-spyware activists like Ben Edelman, Suzi Turner and others published evidence of the illegal distribution methods of DirectRevenue and the Webmasters it paid to install its software. As I catalogued in a Washington Post story published in 2006, experts consistently documented adware bundles like the ones distributed by Directrevenue being installed on computers that contract distributors had already infected with computer viruses and worms.
Ari Schwartz, deputy director for the Center for Democracy & Technology, a consumer policy group in Washington, D.C., said today's settlement was important for because it recognizes the oft-overlooked role that advertisers continue to play in supporting the adware and spyware industry.
"The dirty secret about unwanted adware is that many legitimate companies -- knowingly or not -- fund its proliferation with their advertising dollars. Until we cut off that funding, there will always be a financial incentive for companies to bombard users with adware that they neither want nor need," Schwartz said in a written statement.
While the settlement is a welcome and important one, the terms and fines could have been a bit stiffer. Under the terms of the agreement, all three companies will have to pay between $30,0000 and $35,000 each to New York state, and each will have to more clearly reference the adware vendor in each ad that's displayed. In addition, "prior to contracting with a company to deliver their ads, and quarterly thereafter, the companies must investigate how their online ads are delivered. The companies must immediately cease using adware programs that violate the settlement agreements or their own adware policies."
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