We Ask Ask
I don't know about you but I'm becoming concerned about "brand name" companies
using us (meaning you and me) as pawns in order to fill their already
overflowing coffers with more gold. Recently, I read an article about McDonald's
(Japan) and Coca-Cola (Japan) giving away MP3 players, which were pre-infected
with spyware. And this wasn't the ordinary run-of-the mill spyware either, it
was stealing passwords/usernames. But, when they were found out, McDonald's
(Japan) and Coca-Cola (Japan) immediately apologized and claimed innocence. Are
we supposed to think that these huge corporations are so stupid they don't check
things out first? But what other conclusions can one draw from this? Just
because someone or some company is awash in cash doesn't necessarily mean
Which leads seamlessly to the topic of today's rant.
Almost eighteen months ago we published a rant called "Things We'd Like To Ask
Jeeves". In it, we pointed out that Ask Jeeves (IAC Corp.) was targeting
kids with what we thought was inappropriate content. As if that wasn't enough,
we pointed out that Ask Jeeves (IAC Corp) was not being truthful when they
specifically state that their toolbar contained "no adware and no spyware". We
showed screen shots of advertising appearing in their "SmileyCentral" program
interface; we showed how their toolbar manipulated users' search results by
injecting Ask.com's customers' advertising directly into the search results of
other search engines. And that alone, made Ask's toolbar a browser/search engine hijacker.
That was then and this is now. Since then, IAC/Ask.com ditched its cutesy butler
is inundating the airwaves and Web with advertising promoting its search engine
"Ask.com" . Buried in this onslaught of advertising, lost in the shuffle, is the
fact that Ask.com is enticing users, by all using all sorts of gimmicks, to install its toolbar - The Ask Bar - as
Ben Edelman calls it.
Most users might think that the Ask Bar was just
another search toolbar, like Google's. That's what Ask.com is counting on. But
that's not what the Ask Bar is. The Ask Bar is FunWebProducts (i.e.
SmileyCentral and thirteen other questionable application combined). Many good
anti-spyware programs will remove these products, yet Ask.com continues to claim
they're not adware or spyware. More important, in our view, than whether or
Ask.com (IAC) is pandering adware or spyware or browser/search engine hijackers,
is the deceit IAC/Ask.com users to entice unwary users to install its
Has Google gotten so big and so powerful that competitors like Ask.com feel they
have to resort what amounts to propagation by deception? Apparently so, because,
as Ben Edelman
eloquently discusses in his article - Ask Bar has no compunction about going
after kids. Are they targeting children? It appears so. And, they're not shy about it either. Yet
they deny it.
It's not Google's fault that it is the biggest search engine.
Google got where they are by giving people what they want - good search results.
And they've built an empire ethically. They've been cautious
about their expansion and have a corporate motto which states something like: "Do no harm".
We've always commended Google for their attention to their user's privacy. We've
never found any software that carries the Google brand to have any unwanted
bundles or that entices users to install it by using the word "Free" to dupe the
user into installing bundles of other unwanted software. In other words we've
never seen Google offering "Free Smileys" to entice the user into installing its
toolbars. Never. We've never seen Google offering "Free Cursors" to get people
to install its Desktop Search program. If you download the Google Toolbar you
get the Google Toolbar because you want the Google Toolbar. It's that simple.
It is our opinion, and the opinion of others, like
Ben Edelman, that IAC/Ask.com
does not share Google's ethical approach. In fact, they don't seem to have any
ethical or moral concerns about the methods they use to induce people,
particularly children, to install the "Ask Bar". What do so-called free
"Smileys" or "Cursors" have to do with a search toolbar?
Nothing at all except to serve as goad to install the toolbar. And
again, whether or not these products are adware, spyware or browser/search
engine hijackers is not the point. It's the deceit we're concerned with. The
deceit used by Ask.com/IAC to entice users into install its toolbars in its
attempt to take Ask.com from the number five search engine to the top. We think
if enough people realize what Ask/IAC is doing, they'll not only never make the
top, they might be lucky to hold on to the number five ranking they currently
have. But does anyone care enough to stop this company's questionable methods.
Does anyone care if they use deceit to get their toolbars installed on as many
computers as they can by whatever means are necessary?
Ask.com/IAC plays the semantics game with their customized definitions of adware
and spyware. A program would have to be a password-stealing, stealthy little
devil, to be considered adware or spyware based on their constrictive
definitions. But, we'd like to ask Ask.com about the definition of the word
"deceit". I notice they don't have a customized definition of that word on their
site. Maybe because the word "deceit" is in the dictionary and has been for
several hundred years. They can't rewrite a custom definition of the word
deceit. It's too late. I'll refresh their memory in case they can't remember
what the definition of "deceit" is:
de-ceit (di--seet) –noun
1. the act or practice of deceiving; concealment or distortion of the truth for
the purpose of misleading; duplicity; fraud; cheating: Once she exposed their
deceit, no one ever trusted them again.
2. an act or device intended to deceive; trick; stratagem.
3. the quality of being deceitful; duplicity; falseness: a man full of deceit.
Have we really reached the stage where competition among multi-billion dollar
corporations and their hunger for wealth means that corporations like
IAC/Ask.com are now throwing ethics and morality to the wind; and will now use
whatever means they can to compete? IAC/Ask.com target children is not ethical.
They must think it's not ethically or morally right to target children because,
in fact they deny they do it. They deny they do it even in the face of
overwhelming evidence that they do it.
If Ask.com/IAC entices children (and adults) with colorful, free
"Smileys" and then installs 13 other programs including the Ask bar (also known
as MyWebSearch Toolbar, MySearch Toolbar, MyTotalSearch Toolbar, MyWay Toolbar,
and other pseudonyms) isn't that deceit? If Ask.com has to resort to trickery to
influence people to install their toolbar, isn't that deceit? If I advertise
that I'll give you a free car and then require you (in fine print, buried in a
7500+ word legal document) to give me access to your house and all its contents
in exchange for it, that car isn't really "free" is it? In the real world our
common sense tells us when something is likely to be a scam. But for some reason
people fall for scams on the Internet as if they were born yesterday.
Have we really reached the stage where competition
among multi-billion dollar corporations and their hunger for wealth means that
corporations like IAC/Ask.com are now throwing ethics and morality to the wind;
and will now use whatever means they can to compete? IAC/Ask.com targeting
children is not ethical or moral for a variety of reasons - not just for the
obvious ones. And, Ask.com/IAC must think it's not ethically or morally right to
target children either, because in fact, they deny they do it. And they deny it
even in the face of overwhelming evidence that they do.
How this affects you should be obvious. And we hope
you're beginning to see that the real issue isn't adware or spyware, the real issue
is deceit. And deceit does not need an Internet convention convened to define it like the
terms adware and spyware apparently do.
We STILL don't have an accepted definition of
adware or spyware yet. And we probably never will. Do you know why? Imagine a
state legislature writing a law but the criminals who are affected by the law
have to approve the law before it could go into effect. That's what's happening
on the Internet right now. Anti-spyware companies define spyware and then set
standards. Then they make a list of all products that fit that definition. Then
the spyware company whose product is being targeted by the anti-spyware company
doesn't like that particular definition of the word "spyware" so they sue the
anti-spyware company. Without a clear, generally accepted definition, the
lowlifes and the criminals on the Internet will continue to play the semantics
But deceit is a word that already has a definition.
And deceit is the issue we raise with Ask.com/IAC.
And the issue goes
beyond Ask.com. If their ploys are successful and they increase
their ranking and their income, how long do you think it will take
the other "also-ran" search engines to stoop to Ask.com's level of
deceiving users in order to get their "toolbars" installed? Not
very. There's not much innovation by the big companies on the
Internet these days (with the possible exception of Google who is
buying its way to innovation). Most of the innovation comes from the
individuals, the small companies, the "garage sites". Just look at
YouTube.com. It was started by two guys in a garage - and they're
now billionaires. I point this out because since most of the
innovative ideas do not come from the big companies like Yahoo,
Microsoft, etc. and if one company sees another companies are
successful they're going to copy their ideas. Just look at Yahoo
trying to chase Google. Whenever Google does something that Yahoo
feels will help Google maintain their lead, Yahoo does something
similar to try to keep pace. Fortunately for us, there's not much
likelihood of the number two (Yahoo) and number three (MSN) search
engines emulating the number five search engine, Ask.com. But if Ask
starts to overtake MSN and then Yahoo, it's not a great leap of
logic to think they're going to start copying Ask.com's methods. And
that's bad thing.
I mentioned that
Ask.com, in my opinion, not only uses deceitful means to goad users
into installing its toolbars, they are deceiving advertisers too.
Advertisers pay Ask.com a fee to advertise products on their
network. Advertisers are no more aware than than average consumer of
what Ask's practices are. You can bet that if the companies
advertising with Ask are not aware that Ask is targeting children,
they're not aware either that many of the ads their paying for are
being seen by children. How many children buy online? How many
children have credit cards? Not many. But advertisers pay for
advertising in three ways: The pay by "impression" (i.e. the number
of times the ad is displayed - this is called CPM - or cost per
thousand impressions); they pay by "click" (the number of times
links in the ad are clicked - this is called CPC - or cost per
click) or they pay by "action" (when someone clicks a link and takes
action - buys something, signs up for something - this is called
"CPA" or Cost Per Action). The majority of advertising is either CPM
or CPC. Either way the advertiser paying Ask for CPM or CPC
advertising isn't getting their message to the people who are most
likely to buy a product or service if Ask.com targets children. The
advertiser may be impressed by the number of "impressions" of its ad
being shown by Ask, but this is deceiving if the majority of Ask
toolbars are installed because children were enticed into installing
them by "free smileys", "free cursors" "free screen savers" or other
"free" things which come with the Ask toolbars strings attached. The
advertisers really aren't getting their moneys worth, advertising is
a cost of doing business, ineffective advertising raises prices, and
we all end up paying more. Advertisers are paying Ask for ads which
are being delivered as promised, but which, in many cases, are being
delivered to children who are not able or likely to buy on line. So
Ask is not only deceiving consumers, it is deceiving the companies
that pay them to advertise their products. Ben Edelman writes (of
Ask.com targeting children)"...Ask's representative vehemently
denied that Ask targets kids, and for good reason: It would be
unseemly, at best, to build a business by convincing kids to install
software they don't need and are ill-equipped to understand. Yet
that's my best assessment of Ask's toolbar installation
practices..." Unseemly? Indeed. We ask Ask why would you stoop to
such a level - are your products and services so inferior you feel
the need to deceive users to win the game?
This may all seem like
something we've hashed over a hundred times before. But Ask has now
gone mainstream big time now and continues to pump millions and
millions of dollars into television advertising to compliment its
multi-million dollar Internet advertising budget. In their TV ads,
the "smileys" are nowhere to be seen; on the Internet, the "smileys"
remain their main enticement to Children and can be seen everywhere.
Ben Edelman points out in his article that if one looks at the
popular MySpace Web site, one might think it was owned by Ask.com:
"...Ads at MySpace offer an intriguing case study. The format and
substance of Ask.com's toolbar ads at MySpace tends to falsely
suggest that these offers are part of MySpace. Some user confusion
arises from the color, layout, and lack of a clearly-delineated
separation between ads and content.
Details. Crucially, the substance of Ask's offer also suggests
an apparent affiliation with MySpace.
Details. The net effect is users may install Ask toolbars under
the false belief that these toolbars actually come from MySpace, or
that they're in some way endorsed by MySpace. ...." (from
Ad / Content Separation, and Ask.com Advertising at MySpace" by
Clearly, to me at least,
Ask thrives on deceiving users and advertisers in various ways. But
making its ads match the design and format of MySpace, the intent
seems clear that their intention can be no other than to make it
appear to the viewer that SmileyCentral/Ask.com is part of MySpace
or at least endorsed by MySpace. Ask/IAC denies it targets children
but the proof provided by Ben Edelman shows again that they clearly
do target children. Why else would they advertise on sites geared to
children? Are they too ashamed of their "unseemly" behavior to admit
it. Can one seriously consider Ask.com/IAC a good corporate citizen?
Or even a good corporate Netizen?
In the real (physical)
world, a company who behaved like Ask/IAC would quickly (and
deservedly) garner a bad reputation among consumers and would have
to change in order to compete and survive. But, the Internet,
although a reflection of the real world, gives companies like
Ask/IAC a playground where they can flourish, succeed and excel by
duping users into using its search services albeit via the back door
of its various toolbars.
Here's what we know.
Ask.com/IAC is responsible for the many non-search related products
that they use to goad and entice children (and unsuspecting adults)
into installing not only its toolbars (of various names and
descriptions) but also, in many cases, its questionable bundle of
(at last count) fourteen loosely related products.
As Ben Edelman points out,
IAC/Ask.com's EULA is longer than the constitution of the United States and
longer even than Microsoft Windows' EULA. While we cannot say for sure what the
motive was behind this excessively long, excessively convoluted, EULA is; one
can certainly make an educated guess. The likely motive behind this cumbersome
document is to ensure that the average user won't spend hours plodding through
it. In short: The average user won't read it and Ask.com/IAC knows it. So in
this case, hidden disclosure equals no disclosure at all. The user, after
installing this Ask/IAC bundle has no legal recourse because by installing the
software, you're agreeing to be legally bound by a EULA (End User License
Agreement) you didn't even read. Ask/IAC will blame you for not reading it. But
you and I know that is not fair. In my opinion the document is created to be
long and incomprehensible to the average consumer and therefore, Ask.com/IAC can
be reasonably sure that most consumers will never, ever read it.
And, remember, Ask.com/IAC targets
children. Do you really think children are going to read a 7000+ word EULA
before installing "free Smileys"? Does any reasonable person expect that will
ever happen? Children wouldn't read a fifty-word EULA let alone a 7000-word
EULA. Another deceitful practice of IAC/Ask.com.
Here is a list of some
of the products and services offered by Ask/IAC (Items in bold are
software products - many of which come bundled with others. For
instance, when you click to download SmileyCentral, you'll get a
bundle of software applications mostly unrelated to SmileyCentral)
My Mail Notifier
My Mail Signature
My Mail Stationery
My Mail Stamp
Ask Toolbar or "Ask Bar"
Software programs like
"SmileyCentral" have been generally regarded as
"adware/spyware/hijackers" by most popular anti-spyware software
developers. (Although, many of these now lump adware/spyware into
the Potentially Unwanted Software (PUS) group or "questionable
software" to avoid potential litigation - limburger cheese by any
other name still smells as bad). But, one thing is for sure,
SmileyCentral comes bundled with plenty of other software - programs
which are unrelated to it and all of which are configured to startup
with Windows. This, of course, causes a substantial hit on the
target computer's resources - that's not good because that normally
results in impaired (read "slow") computer performance. And, all of
the software installed by this bundle will require you to leave the
toolbar in place or the other programs will not function. The intent
is clear. Ask/IAC uses enticements like SmileyCentral, deceiving the
user, in order to get their various toolbars installed on consumers'
Ask.com/IAC is not above
using deceitful practices in order to to further its corporate goals
of climbing up the search engine ranks and competing head to head
with Google. IAC/Ask will "give" you "free Smileys" only if you use
its toolbars. And, though they claim you can use any search engine
you want, with any of their toolbars installed, Ask.com/IAC will
inject their advertising into the search results. That means if you
search with Google, and you have one of Ask/IAC's toolbars
installed, advertising will be injected into your search results,
into the page you see from Google on your browser. And, these
advertisements, in many cases will look very similar, sometimes
indistinguishable from your normal search results. This confuses the
viewer and increases the likelihood that the view will inadvertently
click on an advertising link thinking it is a search result. And,
guess who gets paid? Not Google. Not you. Got it now? That's right
IAC/ASK gets paid and the losers are the viewer (you) and the
advertiser who paid ASK/IAC for the inadvertent click.
You can ignore it and
let it go on. We can all sit back and see where this all leads. But,
if we all ignore this kind of deceit and accept these kinds of
practices from "brand name" companies like Ask.com, I can tell you
that we're all going to see more and more of these kinds of "bait
and install" tactics. There may come a day when even those of us who
have acquired a lot of "Net Savvy" won't be able to tell the good
from the bad and our precious Internet, which is already be
threatened in so many ways, won't be recognizable to our children
and our children's children.
The FTC is the only one
who has any control over this type of thing. If we all express our
disgust that feel (or darn well should feel) when a supposedly
upstanding corporation like Ask, stoops to deception to entice
people into installing things on their computer that they may not
want; and to targeting children in order to compete in a
search-engine world dominated by fair-player Google, perhaps we can
What IAC/Ask is doing reminds me of
the old "bait & switch" only this may actually be worse. Your computer
performance is going to be slowed by having numerous applications installed even
though you only downloaded the "free smileys" - the bundle will install a dozen
or more other programs - including the "toolbar du jour". It's very difficult to
remove all this software by normal methods. Going to Control Panel/Add-Remove
Programs may remove parts of these programs but it doesn't remove many registry
entries; it doesn't remove IAC/Ask.com's browser tags; it doesn't reset any
changes made to way your email program sends images; or changes made to your
"default" choice of search engine or start page, etc.. Hundreds of
registry changes are made when you install FunWebProducts/Ask.com software and
many of these linger long after you have attempted to remove their programs.
Even if you use a good anti-spyware program to remove FunWebProducts/Ask.com
software (and many of the top anti-spyware programs do remove FunWebProducts)
you're still going to have some remnants of these programs on your computer and
registry changes made by FunWebProducts/Ask.com software may well be left
behind. This is not right and it's not fair. Especially since many users were
deceived into installing this software bundle in the first place. They wanted
"free smileys" and got "cursors, screen savers, 'fun' cards, etc). And all of
this stuff was installed on your computer just so Ask.com could get the
money-maker installed - the "Ask Bar" (also called MyWebSearch toolbar, MySearch
toolbar, MyTotalSearch Toolbar, MyWay Toolbar, Ask Toolbar, among others). We
call it "Toolbar Du Jour". The name of the toolbar is whatever they are calling
You can lodge a complaint against
Ask.com's deceptive advertising and their deceptive installation practices by
FTC's "Consumer Complaint" Web site. You may also want to reference Ben
Edelman's article and this article when you write the FTC. And most importantly
tell them your experiences with FunWebProducts/Ask.com and how you feel about
programs goading users into installing "Free Smileys" and then finding it out it
was all a ploy to get their toolbars installed on your computer (as well as
numerous other programs you didn't know you were going to get unless you took
time to read a 7000+ word EULA).
The link to Ben Edelman's article
about FunWebProducts/Ask.com is:
The link to this article is:
When a big player
cheats, we, the consumers, pay the price. When a big-time player
like Ask.com cheats - what kind of example does it set for the smaller players
on the Web? If they continue to get away with it, there's going to be a
lot of trouble ahead for us all. And we will have no one to blame but ourselves.
Tell us what you think