Do Google Ads Help Fund Spyware?
Updated: A security researcher says Google's search-based ads play a part in browser toolbars that violate the company's stand against spyware and questionable download practices.
Google's sponsored-link ads may have helped turn the world's best-known search engine into a financial powerhouse, but they also are coming under attack for contributing to spyware practices that undermine trust on the Web.
Anti-spyware researcher Ben Edelman this week criticized Google Inc. for playing a role in the distribution of browser toolbars that he says violates Google's own principle about software downloads.
In a research report released Monday, Edelman outlined examples of how Google's AdWords pay-per-click ads are helping to fund software download practices in which spyware is installed on users' machines or where disclosures and software licenses are hidden.
He specifically cited the role that Google ads play with the IBIS WebSearch Toolbar, a download labeled as spyware by anti-spyware tools, and with search toolbars from Ask Jeeves Inc., one of Google's major ad-distribution partners. Google shares a portion of ad revenue with its distribution partners.
"Users have more and more of this junk trying to sneak onto their computers, and it's a profitable business for the makers of the software because they can show these ads," Edelman said.
With the IBIS WebSearch Toolbar, Edelman examined the ads that appear when a user enters a search query in the toolbar. The search results page, on WebSearch.com, includes sponsored listings.
In some cases, Edelman traced those listings back to the Google.com domain, but they traveled through a middleman that he identified as Go2Net. Go2Net is a property of InfoSpace Inc., which is also a distribution partner for Google's search-based ads. Google does not appear to have a direct relationship with IBIS WebSearch.
An executive with IBIS LLC, the Boca Raton, Fla., company behind WebSearch, took exception with the labeling of its toolbar as spyware and said the company has legitimate contractual relationships for the displaying of its Web and paid search results.
"We don't track people and are consensual, and we're easy to find and remove," said Robert Bogdanoff, a senior vice president for legal affairs at IBIS. "We don't keep personally identifiable information, and we're easily removed by ad-remove programs."
Bogdanoff said IBIS has attempted to contact Edelman so it can investigate his findings, but so far has not received a response. Edelman said he has not heard from IBIS.
IBIS also is conducting a review of its toolbar distribution, including with third parties, to make sure it is consensually downloaded, Bogdanoff said.
InfoSpace officials were unavailable for comment on Edelman's findings. A Google spokesperson declined to discuss specific ad-distribution partners but said the company takes its software principles seriously.
"Google strongly supports the adherence to our software principles by our partner network," the spokesperson said in a statement. "Google reviews claims of non-adherence to our software principles and works with our partners to make changes, if necessary, to be in compliance with our principles."
In the software principles, which Google publicly posted about a year ago, the company frowns upon spyware and software installations that trick users or obscure disclosure. Mountain View, Calif.-based Google states that it follows the principles for all its software and encourages partners to follow suit.
Ask Jeeves already had faced past criticism from Edelman and other anti-spyware advocates about the way its search toolbars are distributed. Google regularly names Ask Jeeves as one of its largest distribution partners for AdWords, and search queries on the toolbars return results that include Google's sponsored links.
Along with its namesake toolbar, the Oakland, Calif., search company also supports toolbars for sites that it had acquired with its purchase of Interactive Search Holdings Inc. Those include the My Search and My Way toolbars.