Scumware - Invasive Online Advertising
By Glenn Weiser
Metroland - Feb 7, 2002

Let’s say you’re the computer-savvy parent of a daughter who’s trying to sell Girl Scout cookies, and you’ve decided to help her out by setting up a commercial Web site, shopping cart and all. You target local church and community groups as a strong potential market, do some advertising, and watch with satisfaction as orders start rolling in. But then, you get an irate phone call from your minister. He complains that he visited your Web site, saw a link to the price list highlighted in yellow, and then, when he clicked on it, got an option to be taken to an “Asian girls” Web site, which turned out to be porn. What kind of a filthy pervert are you, he demands. You’re bewildered. What happened?

Meet adware, better known as scumware in more critical circles. This is a virus-like type of software designed to hijack web traffic to commercial sites and is bundled in with several popular downloadable programs such as MP3 file sharing programs, instant messaging programs, and Usenet readers. Adware works by installing on a PC owner’s hard drive, infecting the Internet Explorer browser now favored by an estimated 85% of Windows users, and then, when the Web surfer visits a site and clicks on a hyperlink or banner ad, attempts to divert him or her to a location-often a porn site- other than that intended by the owner of the site. This victimizes surfers by taking them on surprise detours, and webmasters by sidetracking their visitors.

Advertisers are paying adware companies big bucks to steer traffic their way, and are reportedly quite happy with how things are going. No one else is, though. The disruption caused by this cyberscourge, critic charge, poses one of the greatest dangers to the Internet today.

The best-known forms of this rogue software are Ezula Top Text, Gator, and Spedia Surf+. Top Text works by first changing the typically blue underline beneath a hyperlink to yellow. Then, when the surfer places his or her cursor is over the link, a yellow highlight appears over the underlined word or phrase. Clicking on the link then opens a small window offering a choice between following the original link, which is not named, or the advertiser’s link, which is.

Gator, on the other hand, plasters its own banner ads over other banners on a site. Users clicking on Gator’s banners are thus diverted from the Web sites of the legitimate advertisers

Surf+ combines spyware and adware functions by showing up on the menu bar of the IE browser, reporting the user’s surfing habits back to the advertiser much as some Internet cookies do, and then causing green highlighted links to appear over selected words or phrases on web pages based on the user’s known preferences.

Both of Top Text and Gator, for example, are bundled in with the software of Lime Wire, a Napster-like MP3 file sharing service. Gator also comes with the game Snood.

Watchdog groups accuse companies like Ezula and Gator of stepping on consumers’ rights, copyright infringement owing to the apparent changes in the affected sites’ content and design and, in the case of Gator, interference in the agreements between advertisers and their affiliate Web sites.

Predictably, adware firms defend their practices as ethical. According to CNN, Jeff McFadden, Gator’s CEO, says there's no harm with giving people free software in exchange for viewing ads. In other words, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, even if it’s got a contagious disease. Ezula spokesperson Michele McGarry says users are told about TopText, and it's their choice to opt in /out. This, however, fails to consider the plight of the webmasters who are unable to prevent Top Text’s unwanted links from appearing on their Web pages.

Resentment over these programs has flared in recent months, forcing some of its purveyors to back off. Gator, which had sued to have it’s software ruled legal, is now on the defensive and has agreed to stop selling ads while it tries to resolve a host of complaints against it. KaZaA, another Napster clone, has dropped TopText, but only after several million downloads and a change of ownership. And Spedia angered so many surfers and webmasters that it recently stopped distributing Surf+ altogether.

Because the companies that bundle adware with their programs usually only mention it as “third party software” feature deep in their rarely read Terms of Service agreements, you may have one of these Trojan horses on your hard drive without knowing it.

To determine if you have adware on your computer, open the Windows Task Manger by pressing Ctrl-Alt-Delete, This will show you a list of programs running in the background. You can also open Internet Explorer and visit www.scumware.com, where an applet detects Top Text and/or Surf+.

Removing adware is also fairly easy. Go to the Start menu, and then to Settings/Control Panel. Open up Add/Remove programs and delete as necessary. Or you can visit the LavaSoft site at www.lsfileserv.com and get Ad-Aware, a freeware program that also removes it.

By now, you, our parent of the Girl Scout, have realized that your minister had TopText on his hard drive. So you call him back, and after comparing notes, realize that his teenaged daughter had downloaded LimeWire’s software. His computer, not yours, was in fact responsible for his visit to the porn site. He’ll remove the adware from his PC, and you, of course, are forgiven.

List of Metroland Stories by Glenn Weiser                             ©2002 by Glenn Weiser. All rights reserved.

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