Adware or Ad-Supported Software? A New Threat on Facebook

6th January 2012 

Adware or Ad-Supported Software?  A New Threat on Facebook

Over 800 million people all over the globe use Facebook; if the social networking site were a country, it would be the third largest in the world.  User statistics are impressive, but periphery activity is equally interesting.  According to Facebook’s own figures, users install apps more than 20 million times each day; and every month, half a billion people use an app on Facebook.  While many of these, like the ubiquitous Farmville, Cityville, Sims Social, and Texas Hold ‘Em, offer harmless fun, others can leave users open to rogue attacks.  What do you need to know about apps and adware?

What is Adware?

Not all adware is malware – so what is the difference?  Adware is simply ad-supported software.  Ads are displayed to users, and the end-goal is for the author of the adware to make money.  Sometimes, ad functions are bundled with software programs and they can gather pertinent information, such as the types of websites or products you view, in order to target ads more accurately.

Adware can actually be beneficial to the user. Many legitimate developers and software manufacturers install adware in order to generate revenue.  In turn, they can offer their products at reduced prices or even for free.  This becomes malicious, however, when ads are displayed without a users’ knowledge or programs are installed without consent.  Malicious adware, also known as potentially unwanted programs (PUP), are usually bundled with free programs and do not have clearly defined terms in the end user license agreement.

The Facebook Connection

Most users of the world’s biggest social networking site have first-hand experience with adware.  In 2010 and 2011, it was very common for malicious video links to be displayed on pages without the users’ consent.  One widespread example was the “Sexiest Video Ever” scheme. If a user clicked on the fake video link, he/she was urged to update their Flash video player.  If they did so, they inadvertently downloaded adware.

That was adware 1.0, if you will.  Adware 2.0 has moved to a new level and affects not only users, but other paying advertisers, Google, Yahoo, and Facebook itself.  This new generation works by inserting their ads on websites, oftentimes covering up legitimate, paid ads.  The software offers users something of interest; a customized border or background design, for example.  When the user downloads the application, however, adware and other rogue applications are allowed to enter.

If you are willing to see an ad or two in exchange for the customized design, what’s the problem?  Often, the ads are large, distracting, and placed along the border and middle of the page.  This pushes content, as well as legitimate ads, out of the way or further down the page.  Another issue is that while the application manufacturers are earning revenue from the adware, Facebook is not.  Since Facebook is free because of legitimate advertising, this puts the networking site in a disagreeable position – and one they are fighting to extract themselves from.

Sambreel Holdings, for instance, claims more than 21 million users for its applications.  Two of the most popular are BuzzDock, which lets users search multiple search engines simultaneously, and PageRage, which allows users to customize their Facebook profile page.  Sambreel CEO Arie Trouw says that the apps simply allow users to “view the Web they want the Web to be viewed.”  Apparently, they also want to view the Web with copious amounts of advertisements, which Sambreel delivers. 

Sambreel’s CFO Kai Hankinson says, “It is a nasty term to call us adware.  The term we prefer is ad-supported software.”  Regardless of the name, Sambreel displays ads for major brands such as Gap, American Express, and AT&T.  Representatives for these companies say that they are not in business with Sambreel, which appears to sell ads directly to advertisers or through more than 200 digital advertising companies.  Chief Revenue Officer Brad Miller says, “If anything, we are probably increasing user engagement for increasing the enjoyment users have on their sites.”

Facebook, Google, Microsoft and others affected disagree.  A Google representative, for instance, said “applications that are installed without clear disclosure, that are hard to remove and that modify users’ experiences in unexpected ways are bad for users and the Web as a whole.”  Facebook has sent Sambreel cease and desist orders, but legal questions are far from clear. 

Technically, Sambreel and other manufacturers of adware do let users know that the software or application they are installing is supported by ads.  It is in the end-user agreement.  It may not, however, be clearly or prominently stated in that agreement, and users often do not understand the tradeoffs of installing the applications such as:

On the WebmasterWorld forum, one webmaster noted, “Th[is] sort of software has been going for some years. Personally, I don’t think it’s right to be embedding adverts in this manner. I’ve seen companies sell their hijacked space without telling their clients about their methods, in fact without the salesperson even knowing about it either.”

On the other hand, many, despite disliking adware, point out that the actions are not illegal.  One webmaster says, “I don’t like my ads covered either, but it’s not adware or dangerous malware…its value added content and layouts, supported by ads…Free service, supported by ads…who does that sound like? (hint: Google, Facebook, Yahoo).”

Facebook is now testing and preparing to launch a technical fix that will block Facebook access to any PC that has Sambreel’s software installed.  They will also offer help in uninstalling the adware in efforts to curtail what the social networking site feels are rogue ads.

Adware and applications like those created by Sambreel and other companies may not be technically illegal, but they can impact user experience.  Facebook users are urged to always read the end user license agreement thoroughly; if an application is supported by ads, be aware that it could interfere with visibility and its ads could also be blocking legitimate advertisements.

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