'Adware' firm casts its marketing net wide
Harvard researcher tracks those linked to pop-up software
''Adware" computer programs may be unpopular with Internet users frustrated by the pop-up ads they generate. But according to a Harvard researcher, some of America's biggest companies still use adware to peddle their products.
WhenU.com Inc. of New York is one of the leading adware companies. WhenU's software is included with popular computer programs that are downloaded for free from the Internet. The adware displays advertisements for a variety of products, in windows that unexpectedly pop onto the screen.
WhenU doesn't publicize its list of advertisers. But Ben Edelman, a student at Harvard Law School, found the list himself by analyzing the company's software. He found that Internet gambling houses, online dating services, and sellers of sexual potency drugs are well-represented. But so are respected businesses like online travel service Priceline.com, drug maker Merck & Co., and telecommunications companies T-Mobile and Verizon Communications.
''I can confirm that we do use this technology," said Verizon spokesman John Bonomo, ''but I can also tell you that we're looking very carefully at the use of it. We do know that there are a lot of issues concerning it."
Brian Ek, a spokesman for Priceline, said pop-ups are ''a very, very tiny piece of our marketing mix. . . . We spend most of our money on those Shatner TV ads," referring to company spokesman William Shatner.
Officials at Merck and T-Mobile did not respond to a request for comment. WhenU also declined to comment. ''I just don't feel like it's productive for WhenU to engage in a constant tit-for-tat with Ben," said spokesman Anthony Citrano.
Edelman is a well-known Internet gadfly who has previously published studies about the Internet censorship policies of China and Saudi Arabia. While he's critical of pop-up adware, Edelman said he didn't do the research in order to stir up opposition to WhenU's business practices.
''I wouldn't be surprised if that happened," he said, ''but that's not my agenda. My goal isn't necessarily to change anything but to make sure that people who want information can get information." However, Edelman has been hired as a consultant to companies that are suing WhenU.
The company has been sued by companies in several states because its software will often display an ad for a competing product when Internet users visit a retail website. For instance, the Utah-based online contact lens dealer 1-800-Contacts was angered because visitors with WhenU on their computers would see an ad for a competitor. The state of Utah passed a law in March allowing companies to sue adware companies for displaying competing ads. But when 1-800-Contacts sued under the new law, WhenU argued that the legislation violated the company's First Amendment rights. A state judge issued a preliminary injunction, halting enforcement of the law.
Many consumers also object to adware programs. They dislike the frequent appearance of pop-up ads, and they worry that the software might be violating their privacy by collecting personal information about them. Some adware programs install themselves without warning the consumer, then bombard the computer user with unwanted ads. According to WhenU's website, the company always asks permission before installation and never transmits any data about the consumer or his Internet surfing habits.
Edelman agrees that WhenU doesn't install itself secretly. But he said that the software does collect a list of every website where ads are displayed. This data could help marketers track someone's use of the Internet. But since WhenU doesn't collect names and addresses, this data would pose little threat to someone's privacy.
Congress is moving to crack down on adware companies. A bill pending in the House of Representatives would allow for millions of dollars in financial penalties against companies that distribute adware that installs itself without permission, secretly collects personal data, or alters the normal operation of a computer.
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at email@example.com.