Is Google to Blame for Spyware?

by Preston Gralla

Spyware exists for a single reason --- to make money for someone. To you, popup blizzards are incredible annoyances. To others, it's like the sweet ka-ching of cash registers. So if you want to find out who's abetting spyware, you should, as Woodward and Bernstein said during their investigation of the Watergate break-in, "Follow the money."

Now someone has. And he's followed it to a very surprising destination --- to the much-loved search site Google.

I'm not saying that Google consciously abets spyware. But as you'll see, the company isn't doing all it should to police its ad payouts --- and that may help spyware authors.

Ben Edelman is a Harvard-based researcher, and probably the top authority on the planet when it comes to investigating the seamy financial side of spyware. Edelman notes that spyware often delivers ads given to it by ad intermediaries. Spyware authors are paid by the intermediaries for each click. And the intermediaries in turn are paid by a site for each click. Kill that money chain, and you kill a good deal of spyware.

So what does this have to do with Google? Plenty, at least according to Edelman. Google has an ad program called AdSense. Edelman analyzed the ads delivered by a company called 180solutions that is considered by many spyware, and that delivers unwanted popup ads. His findings : "Pay-per-click advertisers pay Google to show their ads on Google's AdSense partner sites. Some AdSense members then pay 180 to show the members' sites via 180solutions popups" --- in other word, via spyware.

He continues, "I tabulated the advertising intermediaries behind 180solutions' 88,000+ current ads. I find that more than 4,600 of 180's ads include embedded Google ads, while thousands of other ads pass through major ad networks and tracking services like aQuantive and DoubleClick."

In all, he says, more than five percent of 180's ads "include Google AdSense ads, making Google the most prevalent source of funding for web sites advertising with 180solutions."

Not Google's fault, you say? Well, yes and no. Google foresaw that its AdSense program might be used by spyware, and so specifically prohibits its use in that way. But it hasn't taken action to stop it. And so the popup blizzards continue.

I'm a big fan of all things Google, and I don't think Google knowingly lets this happen. But I hope someone at the company recognizes the contribution it's making to the spyware scourge and starts policing its AdSense program better. In some small way, at least, that might help solve the spyware problem.

Is Google to blame for spyware? Let me know what you think.