Google Needs to Step Up in Spyware Fight

Opinion: Google and other the search engines should come up with a plan to make sure the pay-per-click ads on their networks are not helping to fund spyware.

My friend Ben Edelman hopes the gang of three who run Google—Larry, Sergey, and Eric—will take a strong stand against spyware. How? By making sure Google AdSense dollars dont flow to companies that use spyware, adware, and other unsavory tactics to generate the clicks that Google pays them for.

AdSense is a program under which Google syndicates targeted advertising to Web sites and pays them on a per-click basis. You have probably seen these text ads, generally with a Google credit, on sites you have visited. If you click on them, the Web site gets paid.

Edelman, a well-known spyware researcher (when he isnt in class at Harvard), has found Google AdSense items presented to users by spyware and adware programs. In one case, AdSense listings were being posted on a site after being filtered through another company. Edelman wants Google to better police AdSense to ensure that its ads only appear on reputable Web sites and not in spyware.

Edelman is also critical of how Ask Jeeves, a major Google partner, distributes its toolbar. In some cases, users may not understand they are installing the toolbar until the task is complete, he says.

/zimages/5/28571.gifClick here to read more about Edelmans charges.

I dont want you to get the idea that AdSense is a bad thing. Actually, the program provides advertising revenue to many sites that could never sell ads on their own. The ads are generated by Google based on site content, so they should be relevant to visitors. AdSense seems to be an excellent program for the Web as a whole. Revenue-making blogs are largely an AdSense phenomenon.

But, like everything else, AdSense is subject to abuse and Google should make it very clear—though public statements, licensing terms and enforcement of those terms—that using spyware to generate AdSense revenue wont be tolerated.

To me, the real question here is how much can—and will—Google and other the search engines do to make sure the pay-per-click ads on their networks are not helping to fund spyware? So far, none appear to want to discuss real crackdowns (and name names) or make public any specific approaches for fighting this. As these ads become more lucrative (with the revenue shares), I would bet more and more partners (and Googles partners partners, who seem to be the real problem) will toe a fine line.

What Edelman wants is for Google to lead the industry by taking responsibility; he wants it to help solve the spyware problem by taking away AdSense revenue. If Googles management would like to respond, Id be happy to print its explanation and plans in a future column.

Google seems to try to do whats right by users, advertisers and the world more generally. They should be (and are) applauded for this, but heres one area where the company needs to try harder.

Contributing editor David Coursey has spent two decades writing about hardware, software and communications for business customers. He can be reached at

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