ClickTillUWin set itself up for privacy disaster

by Andy Oram

ClickTillUWin became a scandal a week or so ago when people downloading a whole range of applications discovered that something was tracking their Web movements and downloading executable files. Good background can be found in
this Wired article.

It certainly won't help the public image and ethical stance of P2P file-sharing programs that so many distributors eagerly included ClickTillUWin in their offerings. Neither its publicized purpose as a lottery game nor its hidden role in building up targeted advertising has anything to do with the purpose of the file-sharing programs. The desperate search for profits through advertising bites them in a big way.

The company that created ClickTillUWin now claims that they were acting ethically and planned to warn customers about the tracking feature. They blame the distributors for removing the warning, a breach of contract. There's plenty of blame for both sides. The incident makes me mad in general because it unjustifiably poisons the discussion around the whole peer-to-peer phenomenon. (Any company can include a Trojan horse; it has nothing really to do with peer-to-peer.)

I have no sympathy for the ClickTillUWin company. To market something as a lottery game and slip in a marketing function that has nothing to do with it is ethically pretty low on my list (not that I expect much from somebody marketing a lottery in the first place; I don't think much of lotteries). This kind of tracking is a poor practice to foist on users--note that even
DoubleClick has abandoned its notorious tracking system--and
probably wouldn't make much money even if ClickTillUWin become popular. Maybe the company wanted users to be notified before installing it, sure, but creating the product in the way they did left them open to abuse. It was a dumb idea from start to finish.

And yes, we seem to be near the finish. The president now says they're completely stripping out the offensive tracking feature. I'm glad another questionable Internet business has learned a lesson. Along with the DoubleClick backtracking, perhaps it will lead to a decrease in this pernicious data collection and targeting. (To be fair, even the O'Reilly Network where this appears has some DoubleClick ads and collects user information during registration.)

Are companies starting to give up on Web data collection?