Government launches campaign against some 'pop-up' ads

Friday, November 7, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Regulators disclosed a new legal campaign Thursday against an annoying method for delivering unwanted "pop-up" Internet advertisements, accusing a California company of "high-tech extortion" in its offers for software to block the very ads it was sending.

The courtroom effort by the Federal Trade Commission could dampen some of the most irritating practices by Internet marketers, who have learned ways to display intrusive messages on computer screens using a technology built into most versions of Microsoft Corp.'s Windows software.

The FTC obtained a temporary restraining order against D-Squared Solutions LLC of San Diego from a U.S. District Court in Baltimore. The FTC's legal papers accuse D-Squared of unlawfully exploiting Micro-soft's "Windows Messenger Service" feature by sending unwanted ads to Internet users as frequently as once every 10 minutes.

The director for the FTC's bureau of consumer protection, Howard Beales, said company executives were "creating a problem and trying to charge customers for the solution." He called that "high-tech extortion" and "a fundamentally unfair business model."

The FTC asked the judge to block D-Squared from sending any more advertisements or selling its ad-blocking software. It also wants D-Squared to repay consumers who bought its software, which Beales said represents "hundreds of thousands" of dollars.

The head of D-Squared Solutions, Anish Dhingra, declined to comment on the government's accusations. His lawyer, Jacob C. Reinbolt, did not return repeated telephone calls to his office from The Associated Press.

Windows Messenger Service -- unrelated to Microsoft's instant-messaging software that uses the same name -- commonly allows network administrators to display messages on a user's computer screen, such as a warning that a company's Internet connection might be having problems.

But some Internet marketers have seized upon the technology to display ads for software and pornography, unless computer users manually turn it off or use firewall software to block out unwanted messages. It takes seven mouse clicks to disable the messenger service; the FTC said typical consumers don't know how to do this.

"It seemed like they were appearing every 10 minutes. It completely disabled my computer," said Karen McKechnie of Annandale, Va., who complained to the FTC about pop-up advertisements. "People who are sending these messages are infringing on my rights and everyone's rights to use my computer."

The FTC's legal papers allege the advertisements caused "substantial injury" to consumers, citing lost data, crashed computers, frustration, annoyance and harassment. But Beales distinguished D-Squared's computer messages from other forms of Internet advertising that many computer users find just as nettlesome, such as unsolicited e-mails, unwanted instant-messages and pop-up ads on Web sites.

Last month, Microsoft separately warned customers about a security vulnerability in Windows Messenger that could allow hackers to seize control of a computer running most versions of Windows.

It urged computer users to download and install a free repairing patch from its Web site, and it said users should consider disabling the Messenger service immediately unless they need to use it. Hackers already are distributing tools to break into computers using the vulnerability.


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