Even "respectable" companies contribute to the untrustworthiness of the Internet by running advertising that they have every reason to believe is fraudulent. Enforcement can never keep up with the volume.
We've all seen ads on the Web that were designed to deceive us: The
popup browser window that looks like an error message from Windows, or
the box that looks like an e-mail program and says "You have 3 messages
waiting." To begin with, just in case you're unclear on the matter,
yes, these ads are illegal.
Lots of advertising networks run ads like these. Often they sneak
through a genuine vetting process in a company that has standards and
tries, imperfectly, to enforce them. Then there's Yahoo's Right Media
. A study by Ben Edelman of Harvard shows that deceptive ads such as these are common on Right Media and that the company appears to do nothing to stop them
Yahoo disagrees with this categorization. A spokesperson provided this statement:
"Right Media is deeply committed to providing a
high-quality experience for advertisers, agencies, networks and
publishers. We have rigorous platform standards and guidelines for our
members that we expect them to follow, which include preventing the use
of our system in a misleading, deceptive or illegal manner. For
example, since Exchange members classify their own content, we expect
all advertisers to accurately categorize their creatives and associated
landing pages and we expect that publishers will select the types of
ads that are appropriate for their websites. Our Media Guard tool for
creatives also provides additional safeguards for the Exchange. If we
learn that an ad is in conflict with laws or regulations, our
expectations or our guidelines, we take action to remove it from the
Exchange as quickly as possible."
Neither Edelman nor I feel that the evidence bears out these statements by Yahoo.
I've confirmed, mercifully, that Ziff Davis Enterprise, publisher of
eWEEK, does not have any relationships with Yahoo Right Media.
We could take a cynical view of the world that everyone knows that
there are ads like this and that you have to be careful, but that's not
an honest point of view even for a libertarian like me. These ads are
deceitful in that they give the viewer an impression that is simply
false. They deny the viewer the chance to make free and informed
decisions. And even if the damage is simply to get the user to view a
Web page they didn't want to view, that is damage nonetheless, and
ill-gotten gains for the advertiser.
For these reasons the FTC regulates such advertising and has ruled
on similar matters in the past. Edelman cites cases involving
infomercials disguised as news shows with no disclosure that they were
advertisements, and newspaper ads that were disguised as editorial with
no proper labeling. Seems like a fair analogy to me, and it puts these
ads on the wrong side of the law. Read Edelman's analysis
for numerous examples and much greater detail than I'll go into here.
The Better Business Bureau's National Advertising Division also has
spoken up on ads such as these way back in 2001, specifically about
Bonzi Buddy ads which fake Windows error messages. The BBB's Code of Online Business Practices
requires that "online advertisers should not disguise advertising as
technical or desktop functionality when doing so would mislead
customers into clicking on the advertisement thinking that they were
actually performing a technical function." The NAD concluded that the
banner then at issue appeared to be "something other than paid
It's not just the banner ads themselves. Edelman details dishonest
practices on the landing pages for the ads and how they also run afoul
of well-established laws in this field. Hooks that you can win a "free
Nintendo Wii" mention that there are "eligibility requirements" only
below the fold in small print and nowhere detail what those
requirements are. These practices violate the standards in the FTC's stipulated final judgment against ValueClick
Other deceptive ads masquerade not as Windows error messages, but as
the Web site on which they are hosted. Edelman provides an example
where an ad is designed to blend into the site where it is run,
tricking the user into trusting it if they trust the site. Or there are
the ads that create a stream of OK/Cancel dialog boxes attempting to
prevent the user from leaving the ad.
Edelman provides other examples of the sort of muck in which Right
Media wades. The fact that he finds their ads on the typosquatted site
cartoonnetwerck.com says something by itself. There he found a
"pop-under" ad claiming "Congratulations!! You have won todays contest
in Franklin!!" [sic]. (Franklin is the Massachusetts town associated
with the whois information on Edelman's IP address.) Of course, nobody
has won anything.
These clear legal and ethical problems are why Right Media should have rejected the ads.
Other ad networks also run these ads, of course, and I've spoken to
some publishing people about the matter. Nobody wants to be named
saying this, but I'm told that Right Media is not unique in this
regard, and that's hardly surprising. There is the sense among some in
the business is that if Right Media leaves this money on the table
someone else will pick it up. I don't know about you, but this logic
doesn't impress me, and I'm sure it wouldn't impress the FTC.
Edelman agrees that Right Media is not the only company to run such
ads, but argues that it is different, for two main reasons: First,
Right Media has a lot of these ads. According to their own assessments
of their ads (see Edelman's analysis for more on this) 17.78 percent
use the term "Free" with no disclosure language, even though the FTC Guide Concerning Use of the Word -Free' And Similar Representations
says "...the terms, conditions and obligations upon which receipt and
retention of the 'Free' item are contingent should be set forth clearly
and conspicuously at the outset of the offer."
Edelman's second reason for picking on Right Media is that they have
done nothing to block these ads, even though they are well positioned
to do so. Edelman: "In particular, Right Media has already classified
each ad, so Right Media could easily ban the dubious categories of ads.
Instead, Right Media keeps the deceptive ads in its system and
specifically encourages publishers to accept deceptive ads." Recall
Yahoo's claims that "[I]f we learn that an ad is in conflict with laws
or regulations, our expectations or our guidelines, we take action to
remove it from the Exchange as quickly as possible." How could 17.78
percent of their ads clearly violate the law if they are so prompt in
What should be done? The system in place is for the FTC to prosecute
the violators. It may be unusual for the FTC to go after not just the
advertisers, but the ad network as well, but it would be fair for them
to do so in abusive cases like this. After all, they're aiding and
abetting the abusive practices.
Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.
For insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at eWEEK.com Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer's blog Cheap Hack