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 commercial advertising."
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 enforcement?
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