That’s what the Center for Democracy and Technology says in a report issued this past March. Internet surfers are often tricked into downloading programs that barrage them with pop-up ads, potentially pose a privacy risk, and are just plain annoying. Here’s how the Center connects the dots: An advertiser (or its agency) makes a deal with an “adware” company. A user clicks on the ad, the adware company gets paid. The adware company needs a company that furnishes “client-side” software (those “install” packages that add “toolbars” to your browser or “plug-ins” to your applications) so the adware gets inserted into a software bundle when you install the software. Guess what—the software distributor gets paid by the adware company each time that happens, too! If that were all, you would think advertisers could easily control arrangements with adware companies and, correspondingly, software distribution companies working under the direction of those adware companies. But you knew it wasn’t going to end here.
Advertisers and agencies often work through affiliate networks. They get paid to place the ads (think “media buyer” with a technology hat)—banners, pop-ups, sponsored links, pop-unders, search engine ads. The broader the reach, the more they get paid. Some affiliate networks have other affiliate networks they use to further ensure online advertising is all over the place (and revenue increases correspondingly). There are affiliate networks that place blind advertising—their clients don’t know where ads are placed. Website operators, hosting companies and Internet service providers are also enlisted to distribute software through websites and often have developed a network of distributors. Remember, the goal of advertising is to reach as many relevant consumers as possible—limiting how, where, when and to whom adware is available is not exactly consistent with limiting the message or the medium.
Thus, for consumers and regulators it is not simple to figure out how an advertisement arrived at your computer from its origins at the advertiser. The paths may be different for each ad and for each consumer—adding to the complexity of fixing responsibility. Hmmm.
Often, the financial incentive is so great that the operator of a website will push adware onto users’ computers without consent. In many cases, neither the advertiser, nor the adware creator is likely to find out. With such a distributed, diverse and indirect chain of relationships and payments, no wonder I keep getting those pesky pop-ups! A user might not have a clue why a particular ad is showing up and, significantly, even if a consumer responds to the ad, the advertiser may have no way of knowing if the adware was placed without consent—in violation of the advertiser’s policies and best intentions.
Does your company unwittingly contribute to the problem (or ignore it)? Do you have policies (which translate into legal obligations)? Do you require monitoring, audit reports and enforcement? Why not? I like advertising, but not the kind that stems from software installed on my computer without my permission. If financial incentives stimulate (or tacitly condone) proliferation of poor practices, changing the financial incentives, especially if impermissible activities are detected, can change the practices. Would you prefer to have your company and its brand names highlighted in reports by or to the FTC? That’s where you don’t want your name to pop up!