Gator Wants to Spearhead Standards

Former Internet advertising bad boy Gator says it’s interested in leading the charge for standards governing ad-supported software and pop-ups.

Redwood City, Calif.-based Gator’s proposed guidelines essentially extend common, self-regulatory online advertising practices to ads delivered by software applications and pop-up ads. The new proposals would require publishers to obtain consent for installing software or displaying ads, provide notice on the ads so consumers would know their origin, and provide ways to opt-out or uninstall the software.

The rules — often referred to as “notice and choice” — draw on earlier, online ad-related proposals by industry groups like the Network Advertising Initiative, the Responsible Electronic Communications Coalition and the Direct Marketing Association. The earlier rules, however, don’t specify that ads must identify the distributor.

The proposed guidelines, Gator said, are meant to address needed improvements in consumer experience and ad sellers’ behavior.

The problem, according to Gator, is that ad-supported applications and Web content often display ads like pop-ups and pop-unders “without reasonable consumer disclosure or permission.” Furthermore, some software publishers also install software on consumers’ PCs “without providing reasonable disclosure or obtaining permission.”

What’s odd about the statement is that industry insiders last year were saying the same things about Gator.

Critics routinely contended that the software company, which makes an advertising-supported “digital wallet” for storing commonly-used Web passwords and address information, both deceived consumers and unjustly monetized publishers’ Web traffic.

Opponents including the Interactive Advertising Bureau said consumers had little idea that they were installing the Gator program, of how to uninstall the program, and that the application was delivering ads at all. As a result, critics said the ads delivered by the application — pop-ups and a controversial banners format that replaces ads built into Web pages — were frustrating to users, being unaware of the ads’ origin.

Furthermore, the IAB charged in August that most consumers assume Gator’s ads actually come from the Web page they were visiting — thereby damaging the reputation of the publisher. The New York-based online ad sellers’ association also said the practice of replacing publishers’ sold ads was tantamount to thievery.

Gator soon fired back at the IAB with a lawsuit that month that asked federal courts to declare that its critics’ complaints were unfounded. Yet the hostilities — and the suit — were dropped abruptly in November, following a change of leadership at the industry association.

For its part, Gator said it would halt selling of the “replacement banner” format and would work with the IAB to develop some sort of amenable solution to the standoff. Now, evidently, that solution is taking the form of proposed guidelines for Web ad selling’s best practices.

“Consumers want control of their PCs,” said Gator president and chief executive Jeff McFadden. “They’re confused as to who is responsible for displaying these high volumes of uninvited pop-ups and pop-unders and they are becoming frustrated. This is hurting ad responsiveness and is giving a black eye to the online advertising industry.”

The Gator guidelines are unique in that they apply rules designed for Web- and e-mail ads to software. Nevertheless, the door is still left open for critics to charge that the effort remains little more than hypocrisy — since the firm never conceded in the first place that it had failed to provide users with notice and choice.

Regardless, the gesture is drawing praise from Gator’s one-time foe.

“As new advertising technologies vie for consumers’ attention, the industry clearly needs some basic ground rules that serve the needs of both advertisers and consumers,” said IAB chief executive and president Greg Stuart. “All parties to the process have an obligation to rally behind a clear set of guidelines if we want to continue to grow the online ad business.”

Gator said it plans to continue working with the IAB to promote its guidelines, with the goal of adoption in some form by the rest of the online ad industry.

In addition to talking with the IAB, Gator also said it plans to encourage other makers of ad-supported software to adhere to its proposed guidelines, and that it hopes to undertake efforts to educate advertisers about how to select new forms of ad delivery vehicles that are consumer-friendly.

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