The five lawsuits filed by Microsoft against entities thought to be spreading "malvertising" should be seen as more than an effort to help unwary consumers using Microsoft networks, said the company. The litigation is an attempt to battle a phenomenon that threatens many legitimate companies in the online ad industry, it said.
"We believe these to be the first lawsuits filed that directly target the emerging threat of malvertising affecting online advertising networks worldwide," said a statement from Microsoft. "This kind of threat is not limited to Microsoft networks. It's a concern for online advertising service providers worldwide."
Microsoft Associate General Counsel Tim Cranton, in a blog post announcing the litigation, described malvertising as "the industry term for malicious online advertising," and noted Microsoft works with other providers of online ad platforms to fight the practice. "But we're now taking that effort a step further," Cranton wrote. "Our filings in King County Superior Court in Seattle outline how we believe the defendants operated, but in general, malvertising works by camouflaging malicious code as harmless online advertisements."
He said the phony ads "then lead to harmful or deceptive content" such as redirecting users to sites that advertise "rogue security software, also known as scareware" which issues fake claims about finding or preventing viruses, malware and other unwanted intrusions on the computer. "Malvertising may also directly infect a victim's computer with malicious software like Trojans -- programs that can damage data, steal personal information or even bring the users' computer under the control of a remote operator," explained Cranton.
He said Microsoft's work in battling malvertising and scareware "is vitally important because online advertising helps keep the Internet up and running." Cranton called advertising "the fuel that drives search technologies," and added that it pays for free services including Windows Live, Facebook, Yahoo and MSN. "Fraud and malicious abuse of online ad platforms are therefore a serious threat to the industry and for all consumers and businesses that rely on these free services," wrote the attorney.
In a separate statement, Microsoft said it plans to continue taking "proactive action" on nefarious online ad-related practices as part of an "ongoing commitment to promote the integrity of the digital advertising community and help create a safer, more trusted Internet experience for everyone."
The company said its investigations continue, but it believes it successfully cleaned its networks of the malvertising.
The lawsuits were filed in King County Superior Court in Seattle. Named as defendants in the Microsoft lawsuits are entities named "Soft Solutions," "Direct Ad," "qiweroqw.com," "ITmeter INC." and "ote2008.info." Cranton acknowledged Microsoft doesn't know the names of the people involved in the scams but hopes the litigation will lead to their identification.
Microsoft's actions follow an incident in which an unknown number of NYTimes.com readers were exposed to what the company called a "rogue ad." According to its own report, The Times ad took over the browsers of many site visitors, filling their screens with a fake computer virus scan. They were then peddled an anti-virus software, described in the story as "more snake oil than a useful program."
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