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Readers speak out against commission diversions
'Stealware' takes money from rightful owners

By  Brian Livingston October 09, 2002  

I wrote last week about "shopping plug-ins," which some people call "stealware." Such plug-ins have been secretly distributed over a period of months by Morpheus, Kazaa, and other peer-to-peer music-sharing programs.


In some cases, plug-in software detects when a PC user is visiting an e-commerce site. The plug-in then inserts an "affiliate" code into the browser's URL. This extracts a commission payment from the vendor (typically 5 percent), although the software did nothing to drive traffic to the e-business.

In other cases, plug-ins change the code of a genuine affiliate on the fly. As a result, the commission generated by the original affiliate Web site is sent to the publisher of the music-sharing program instead.

Makers of such plug-ins say they're updating their programs to reduce the second behavior while keeping the first. I have no figures on the number of plug-ins that use either technique, although the total installed base appears to be in the tens of millions. But judging from the reactions sent in by my readers, the concept in either form is not at all satisfactory.

A reader whose name I'm keeping to myself writes about a site that donates a portion of its revenues to charity:

"It just so happens that my former co-worker approached me to write such an application that thwarts online addresses to insert affiliate codes.

"You will notice that it says it is still in development, as I refused to go along with the idea. Not only did I feel it was wrong, but as a company that uses BeFree and notices a lot of this going on, I was furious.

"I tried to convey to him that perhaps the charity could possibly benefit from the percentage of affiliate commissions that were generated, but it would be minimal. Also, the companies themselves would not like their valued customers, who had typed in their link directly, being re-directed. That would skew their traffic reporting.

"Just thought I would let you know of an actual company doing just what you are saying."

In a different vein, a reader I'll call Bill P. writes:

"What's missing is the agreement of the website whose affiliate tags are being swapped.

"The makers of these programs also claim that the fees earned will defray the costs of [their] development, enabling the software to remain free. Yet what about the affiliate Web site? In my case, the money I receive from book referrals supports the Web site. Without such support, there'd be no site. Those program makers don't take that into account, that when they swap their affiliate code for mine, they are taking something away from me; I'm an unwitting subsidizer of their software."

Finally, reader Mike Wollenhaupt makes an interesting analogy to shoplifting:

"I read your article regarding the stealware/plug-in software that diverts advertising commissions from legitimate Web site links to the plug-in owners. This appears to me to be an abuse of the Internet and the trust of Internet users by those who distribute the stealware plug-ins. I am sure that the individuals who use the plug-ins are not aware of this practice.

"This practice seems like electronic shoplifting to me. In the retail market, shoplifters take goods from retail stores and this increases the operation costs for the retailers. The increased costs are usually passed on to consumers who pay for their purchases.

"The stealware may create a similar environment that motivates site operators to cover their costs to operate in different ways. Will this possibly lead to Internet users having to pay for access to Internet sites long term? I wonder?"

My thanks to everyone who contributed their thoughts. I'm sending a gift certificate for a book, CD, or DVD of their choice to the readers whose comments I printed.

The New York Times, which carried a feature article on this subject last week, has a new piece showing that some affiliate services networks are still tolerating the plug-ins: http://www.nytimes.com http://bri.li/4e6f

Various sites are following the situation and taking action. One of the most comprehensive watchdogs is known as ThiefWare, which recommends that affiliates band together in the Internet Affiliate Marketing Association: http://www.thiefware.com http://bri.li/61f7

Another site, DoxDesk, provides a page that displays in real time whether visitors' systems contain any secret plug-ins: http://and.doxdesk.com http://bri.li/7197

These sites link to many others with information on various aspects of the problem.

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If you've ever kicked yourself for missing a great picture because you weren't carrying your bulky camera, relief is at hand. I've just purchased the tiniest little camera I've ever used -- and that's tiny.

The StyleCam Blink is only 2 inches by 2 inches small, and the whole thing is barely 0.6-inch thick, including the lens. It takes pictures at VGA resolution (640 x 480), which is fine for use on Web pages or in e-mail. The device literally is designed to fit on your keyring, clip to a belt loop, or hang around your neck on an included strap. And for $39.95 retail, it's rock bottom.

At this price, of course, the list of things it doesn't do is as long as what it does. The Blink has no flash, so it's best used in daylight. It has a fixed lens, so your subject must be at least 24 inches away. And it contains no expensive Flash chip, so you must upload your pics to your PC to make room for more.

The package is still a bargain. The camera includes a USB uploading cable and acts as a Web cam, complete with its own stand. Based on my scouring the Internet, the best price, including shipping, is at Digitally Unique, which sells the package for $36 plus $6 (search on "blink"): http://www.digitallyunique.com http://bri.li/757f

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1. Increase your holiday sales 24 percent this year, despite bad economy: http://www.earthweb.com http://bri.li/437

2. Monday's e-mail surge makes Bugbear even more common than the Klez virus: http://www.silicon.com http://bri.li/81f

3. Improving your supply-chain management can improve your bottom line: http://www.cfo.com http://bri.li/c07

4. House vote may save small Webcasters of music from totally disappearing: http://www.news.com http://bri.li/fef

5. 36 percent of users will leave your Web site if it has too many ads: http://www.nua.ie http://bri.li/13d7

6. "Mickey Mouse" case might make content available for Web posting: http://www.siliconvalley.com http://bri.li/17bf

7. Subtle tricks to learn the terms people are actually searching on: http://www.stickysauce.com http://bri.li/1ba7

8. Google demotes marketer's sites to the dreaded "pr0" (PageRank 0): http://www.highrankings.com http://bri.li/1f8f

9. Secrets of Google's PageRank uncovered; best essay I've seen: http://www.supportforums.org http://bri.li/2377

10. That's rich: Homeless man's Web page gets famous by taking donations: http://www.computing.co.uk http://bri.li/275f

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Here's an award ceremony that even I might appear in someday: the Ig Nobel Prize. The latest winners were named last week in a ceremony at Harvard, including:

-- Theo Gray of Wolfram Research, who used the Periodic Table of the Elements to build a real coffee table;

-- Arnd Leike of the University of Munich, for demonstrating that a head of beer obeys the Law of Exponential Decay; and

-- Four scientists for their report on "Courtship Behavior of Ostriches Toward Humans Under Farming Conditions" (guess it gets lonely out there on the plains).

There's much more here, all of which is designed to "make people laugh, then make them think." Check it out: http://www.improb.com http://bri.li/c39f

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E-BUSINESS SECRETS: Our mission is to bring you such useful and thought-provoking information about the Web that you actually look forward to reading your e-mail.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: E-Business Secrets is written by InfoWorld contributing editor Brian Livingston: http://SecretsPro.com

Research director is Vickie Stevens. Brian has published 10 books, including:

Windows Me Secrets: http://www.amazon.com http://bri.li/0764534939

Windows 2000 Secrets: http://www.amazon.com http://bri.li/0764534130

Win a gift certificate good for a book, CD, or DVD of your choice if you're the first to send a tip Brian prints. mailto:Brian@SecretsPro.com

Brian Livingston is publisher of BriansBuzz.com. Send tips to him at brian@briansbuzz.com.

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