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The Scum of the Web

  |  December 6, 2001   |  Comments

Those uninvited, invisible little apps lurking somewhere on your hard drive that serve up ads. Should software, or ads, have squatter's rights?

"Where the heck did that ad come from?" I thought to myself as I surfed an obscure site that I had never known to carry advertising. No banners, tiles, text ads, or anything even remotely commercial was on the page. Yet, as I stared at my monitor completely mystified, there was no mistaking it. Something had popped up -- an ad for a travel provider was on my screen.

I right-clicked on it and selected "Properties." Nothing out of the ordinary. The ad was delivered via one of the major third-party ad servers. The only thing that was out of the ordinary was that I couldn't find what the heck triggered the darned thing. As I was running late for work, I didn't have time to do any significant sleuth work, but I made a mental note to find out what was going on when I got home from work that evening.

As it turns out, I was right to be suspicious. The ad I saw hadn't originated from any particular Web page I was visiting. Rather, it was spawned by a rogue program residing on my hard drive -- a program I didn't invite on to my computer (at least, I don't think I invited it aboard).

A little research on one of my favorite message boards turned up a key to solving the mystery. That key is a site called Scumware.com.

Scumware.com is a great little site that deals with rogue applications such as the one that had worked its way on to my machine. You might remember the little controversy a few months ago about Gator and the objections from online publishers that Gator software was hijacking their opportunities to serve ads. It turns out that the problem is even worse than I had thought.

Somebody out there had a great idea. That is, it would have been a great idea if it weren't so unethical. Someone figured, "Hey, why do I need to be a publisher to make money delivering ads to consumers?" and decided to design a program that served ads not from a Web page but from the application itself. This presents a problem. After all, how does one get an application that serves ads onto the computers of an Internet population that has become increasingly wary of privacy issues surrounding online advertising? That's where the unethical part comes in. Such applications are hidden in common freeware programs people download from the Web.

Think about how many times you've downloaded something from a trusted source and installed it without casting anything more than a cursory glance at the license agreement. This was what I did, right before I realized that the rogue program was popping ads onto my machine. In retrospect, perhaps I should have looked at that license agreement a little more carefully. The installer for that application also installed the rogue program.

I could go back and take a look at the agreement for the program I downloaded, but I'm not in the mood to wade through pages and pages of legalese to find the undoubtedly microscopic type that reads something to the effect of "By installing this program, you also agree to the installation of other programs that may affect your Internet content viewing." Whoever wrote this program and cut the licensing deal that allowed it to piggyback on the marketing efforts of a larger, more popular application has probably covered himself from a legal standpoint. That's not the point.

When I installed the first program, I had not granted explicit permission for this rogue application to be installed on my computer. If I had noticed it, I wouldn't have allowed it on my machine. Yet someone out there with a get-rich-quick mentality thinks it's OK to deliver what I would call a virus to my machine, so that he can make money from advertising without actually having to produce any content.

What's more, there are advertisers out there willing to pay for advertising to be delivered via these sneaky little programs. Either that or they're blissfully unaware of where their ads are running. In either case, I think it's time that this industry nips things in the bud, before this problem gets bigger than it already is.

Visit the Scumware.com site to see which applications are delivering advertising in this fashion. Follow the instructions on the site to clean out from your machine any nasty programs that are serving ads unbeknownst to you. More important, speak to the people who are writing the checks (advertisers) and make sure none of their money is trickling down to scumware programs via an ad broker or a site network. Better yet, ad agencies should add clauses to their terms and conditions stating that no ad dollars should go toward ads delivered via scumware programs. After all, if commercial advertisers violate the trust they've built up with online consumers by popping ads on desktops surreptitiously, the industry's reputation could suffer. That's not something we need right now.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tom Hespos

Tom Hespos heads up the interactive media department at Mezzina Brown & Partners. He has been involved in online media buying since the commercial explosion of the Web and has worked at such firms as Young & Rubicam, K2 Design, NOVO Interactive/Blue Marble ACG, and his own independent consulting practice, Underscore Inc. For more information, please visit the Mezzina Brown Web site. He can be reached at thespos@mezzinabrown.com.

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