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Big Ads Add to Adware, Spyware

Major Internet advertisers are financing -- sometimes unwittingly -- the spread of potentially harmful adware and spyware, according to a new Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) finger pointing report.

The report targets mainstream advertisers whose ads appear through 180solutions, one of the world's largest developers of Internet advertising software.

Earlier this year, the CDT filed a complaint against the Bellevue, Wash.-based 180solutions with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), accusing 180solutions of "deliberately and repeatedly" engaging in illegal and deceptive spyware practices.

According to the CDT, once the software is installed, often without consent, it tracks users' online movements and displays often unwanted popup advertisements based on the sites they visit.

Monday's CDT report focuses on advertisers doing business with 180solutions.

"Knowingly or not, these companies are fueling the spread of unwanted programs that clog people's computers, threaten privacy and tarnish the Internet experience for millions," CDT Deputy Director Ari Schwartz said during a teleconference.

"Because the adware financing model is willfully convoluted, many companies may not know where their advertising dollars are ending up."

The CDT identified 20 well-known advertisers doing business with 180solutions and attempted to contact each about their advertising policies.

"It is important to note that the advertisers we contacted may or may not have a direct relationship with 180solutions," the CDT report states. "Given the nature of the Internet advertising industry, it is possible for companies to have several intermediaries between themselves and adware distributors."

The report adds, however, "Our testing, which included the use of a packer sniffer to monitor how the ads were loaded, suggested that many of these advertisers did deal directly with 180solutions to place their ads."

Seven advertisers responded to the CDT's inquiries. Companies not responding to the CDT's inquiries included True.com, PerfectMatch, Club Med Americas, uBid, ProFlowers, GreetingCards.com, NetZero, PeoplePC, Altrec and Waterfront Media.

Of the companies that responded, "Two did not have policies [about adware] and five had policies [against adware] but they were still running ads with them [180solutions]. These companies have seen the benefit of engaging in unfair and deceptive advertising but they haven't seen the downside."

Two companies responding to the CDT were eHarmony and Netflix. Both, according to the report, illustrate the problem of advertising networks and industry standards.

Dating site eHarmony explained that it requires "all other parties" with whom they advertise to follow the standards of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB).

IAB standards, though, do not include guidelines for dealing with "nuisance or harmful adware" advertising. Instead, the IAB suggests advertisers need to include specific terms in affiliate agreements as to where and how ads get placed.

"Thus, while eHarmony relies on IAB standards, the IAB seems to put the onus back on eHarmony to stipulate adware advertising policies," the report notes. "To CDT's knowledge, eHarmony has not taken this step."

Netflix, on the other hand, explicitly prohibits the display of its advertising through adware or spyware programs. According to the CDT, Netflix investigated how its ads were showing through 180solutions and determined that the "behavior that caused the ad to be served by 180solutions software . . . was unique and random."

The CDT claims that after receiving Netflix's explanation, more Netflix ads appeared through 180solutions.

"It is important to note that Netflix is one of the largest online advertisers that CDT contacted," the report states. "To CDT this illustrates the difficulty large companies have in enforcing their policies given the current online advertising environment and the complex Web of relationships involved with placing ads."

Schwartz said although adware companies "bear the greatest blame" for the spread of unwanted programs, these adware and spyware programs wouldn't exist "without advertising dollars to fund them. We need to cut that revenue off at the source."

He added, "We're urging those advertisers to be more vigilant to ensure that they aren't unwittingly bankrolling one of the Internet's fastest-growing problems."