Verizon Gets Evil-er

verizonevil.jpegNet neutrality opponent Verizon is busy on other fronts in its efforts to break the Internet — and to profit in the process.

Last June, the broadband provider announced a plan to “help” users who mistype domain names into their browsers by redirecting to an “Advanced Web Search” page bearing Yahoo search results — and Yahoo Publisher Network’s ads on Verizon’s own pages. This DNS redirect service allows the ISP to profit off of its users’ errors (but they aren’t always errors, as I’ll illustrate below), while at the same time overriding other search pages and, as Verizon acknowledges, causing other potential technical problems.

Recently, many of Verizon’s high-speed FiOS customers in varying pockets of the country have fallen victim to the hijacking, which seems to be spreading. My Brooklyn-based friend (and Verizon DSL customer) Steve shot me an enraged e-mail the other day full of examples of how Verizon is hijacking not mistyped URLs, but rather the “naked domains” (to coin a phrase) virtually all experienced users have been trained to type in the address fields of their browsers.

The examples he provided include typing “google” (rather than painstakingly typing “http://www.google.com”), “gmail,” “apple” and “gawker.” As Steve put it, “It goes to a Verizon page with a bunch of clickly links and the URLs in eensy-teensy type below…I can type other things and it behaves normally…but this thing is a freakin’ ROADBLOCK.”

And it happened out of the blue. My friend is no Web savant, but he’s reasonably Web savvy. Verizon is quite obviously overriding his Firefox browser.

Verizon’s DNS redirects are not, as the company claims, helping customers who make typos. They’re leveraging — and hijacking — established Internet user behavior. Overwhelmingly, users type naked brand names directly into their browsers’ address fields, confident they’ll get to their intended destination. Unless, of course, they’re Verizon customers. The redirects can strike anywhere, anytime.

Oh, but Verizon is playing the opt-out card. Only way too subtly, and making opting out of these redirects way too difficult for the average user. See any opt-out instructions on this Advanced Web Search page? Hint: click the “About This Page” button in the upper right hand corner. The link takes you to an about page with yet more links for opting out (depending on the type of service you subscribe to. You’re then presented with a long list hardware options, each with its own set of opt-out configuration instructions.

But wait — it gets even worse. For kicks, I clicked on the Westell Ethernet Modem Verizon provided me with for my DSL service, only to find the message “to change the DNS server settings in this modem to opt out of the DNS Assistance, you must change your DNS settings in your operating system.”

Another click to find those instructions reveals a dead end. Verizon only provides information for changing DNS settings for various Windows platforms. Mac owners (like Steve and I) have just followed six links to nowheresville. As he put it, “somewhere {there’s an opt-out option, but then it seems unduly complicated.”

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