If a publication runs advertisements for various companies, you pretty much expect that those ads are from legitimate businesses, right?
How about if you found out that one very large source of ads was running come-ons for companies that charge consumers money for other people’s software that’s usually given away for free?
An antispyware researcher claims that that’s exactly what the Google search engine is doing with some of the ads it allows.
Ads That Stretch the Limits
I wrote in this space last week about Ben Edelman, a Harvard Law School graduate who criticized TRUSTe.org’s third-party certifications of “trustworthy” Web sites. Last week, he also released a report critiquing Google for what he calls “taking users’ money under false pretenses.”
• Sales of Skype, WinZip, Firefox, and others. Searches at Google for free programs, such as Skype voice-over-IP software, the WinZip compression utility, and the Firefox browser, result in the display of ads that offer “free downloads.” In many cases, however, “The specified products are available from the specified sites only if the user pays a subscription fee,” Edelman says (emphasis in the original).
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In his report, Edelman provides specific examples of the kinds of ads he says Google allows:
• Completely free ringtones that aren’t. Ringtones are popular search topics at Google. A query on “ringtones” results in many ads being shown for “free” cell phone downloads. Edelman notes that many of the advertisers offer, in reality, “a limited free trial followed by an auto-renewing paid service (a negative option plan),” which in some cases costs $9.99 per month. Even worse, ringtone ads that claim “no credit card is required” often fail to disclose that users are charged through cell-phone billing systems, the researcher found.
• Ads claiming genuine software that isn’t. Still other ads that Google accepts, Edelman says, imply that the advertisers offer genuine antispyware programs, such as Spybot Search & Destroy and Ad-Aware. “These sites actually primarily offer other software,” Edelman reports.
Why would an Internet user pay for software that could be obtained free from its original publisher? Edelman says “novice or hurried users” may not realize that an advertised promotion is a bad deal. Users may have been told, for example, that Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser is weak on security. When they try to get Firefox instead, a small charge may not appear unreasonable to a user who’s intent on upgrading to a safer product.
Google Responds to Criticism
When I asked Google executives for a response to Edelman’s claims, public relations representative Barry Schnitt sent me a statement by e-mail.
“When we become aware of deceptive ads, we take them down,” the statement said. “According to the Google AdWords Editorial Guidelines, ‘If your ad includes a price, special discount, or “free” offer, it must be clearly and accurately displayed on your website within 1-2 clicks of your ad’s landing page.’ We will review the ads referenced in this report, and remove them if they do not adhere to our guidelines.”
Edelman says he received a similar response when he contacted Google about the findings of his report. In an e-mail to me, he indicated that the search engine hadn’t as of that time eliminated the cases he’d found.
“Do these ads comply with Google’s policy?” Edelman wrote. “That would explain why they remain on Google’s site 5 days after Google was first (re)alerted to the problem. But if Google’s policy lets a site claim to be ‘free’ when it’s not, and lets a site sell software that’s actually free, then Google’s policy is weak at best.”
Edelman himself raises a possible legal defense that could shield Google and other Web portals from the consequences of running misleading ads. In the U.S., the Communications Decency Act (CDA) exempts “a provider of an interactive computer service” from being treated as the “publisher” of content that others provide through that service.
However, Google isn’t merely a communications channel but actively edits some ads and refuses to run others under its content policy, Edelman points out. Currently prohibited by Google’s written policy are alcohol, fireworks, and tobacco, among other products. This might eliminate some of the CDA’s protections in the case of a lawsuit against Google, Edelman speculates, but “no one has attempted such a suit to date.”
Regardless of its legal responsibility, Edelman says, “Google ought to do more to make ads safe as a matter of ethics.”
Edelman’s findings on search-engine advertising are posted on his Web site, BenEdelman.org, complete with illustrations of several examples. It makes for some chilling reading — and a reminder of the adage, “Buyer beware.”