Earlier this week, Ars Technica ran an article about CMA Communications, a rural ISP that, for a time at least, began to display banner ads on all websites a customer visited. This move angered customers, who already paid for their Internet access, but it also was earning the attention of webmasters who were having ads injected into their sites, often covering up existing ad spots.
Though CMA Communications appears to have abandoned the project, it brought site manipulation to the limelight in a major way. It was the first time an ISP, supposedly an impartial intermediary, was interfering with customers’ Internet traffic for the purpose of injecting ads.
But just because CMA has stopped doesn’t mean that your site gets to your visitors exactly the way you intend. Unwanted site manipulation has been a problem for webmasters for some time and it may get a lot worse.
Though most bloggers know to check their theme on multiple browsers and devices, all of that tweaking and fine-tuning may be for naught if intermediaries, either with or without user permission, alter your site and give them a different experience.
So what are your visitors actually seeing when they come to your site? The answer may be more complex than you may realize.
Adblockers, Readers and Toolbars
On one end of the spectrum are plugins, extensions and add ons that users intentionally add to their browser to modify your site. They can include:
- Adblockers: This includes a variety of scripts and tools designed to block advertisements and ad-like elements.
- Readers: Tools such as Readability and Everynote Clearly are designed to make your posts more readable, but drastically alter your site in the process.
- Social Media/Sharing Tools: A variety of social media tools modify every site that’s visited, such as Pinterest’s adding “pin” buttons to every image and so forth.
While webmasters might gripe that some of these tools often eliminate advertisements that they depend upon for revenue, at the very least these tools are installed with the knowledge and understanding of their users. This means that any effect they have on the site is, for the most part, expected.
This includes when these extensions act in ways that are less than desirable. For example, some ad blocking plugins are cleaner than others in the way they remove ads and some can accidentally break pages carefully designed with advertisements in mind.
In those cases, users tend to blame the plugin, not the site, for what happens. It may be small consolation as the ads are still gone, the site is still messed up and the visitor still annoyed, but at least the frustration is not taken out on the site itself.
That is not what happens with other cases of completely unwanted site modification.
Malware, Adware and More
Last month, Apple had to hurredly release an update for OSX to block a piece of malware named Yontoo, which was injuecting ads in into webpages on some Macs.
But while Yontoo was clearly malware, other applications have made blocking and replacing some of your ads the users’ payment for using their service. The leader in that area is a company named Sambreel, which offers programs to visitors and, as part of those programs will replace ads.
The company even went as far as to sue Facbeook when Facebook when the social media giant sought to block one of their applications. Fortunately, Sambreel lost and Facebook won.
In these cases, it’s most likely that the user doesn’t understand how the sites are being modified and where the new ads are coming from. In the case of Sambreel, for example, when the software replaces a premium ad on the New York Times with an ad for “Play Pickle”, users won’t assume that it was some behind-the-scenes software, but rather, will assume it’s a legitimate association between the two companies.
Obviously, this can harm the reputation of the New York Times and other high-quality sites that find themselves associated with advertisers they never would have accepted otherwise.
Furthermore, any other damage done to the site appears to be the fault of the webmaster. Awkward spacing and messed up styles caused by removing or injecting elements become the problem of the site and, until the bad-acting software is removed, users will be largely unaware of how their computer is impacting their Web viewing.
This puts webmasters in a precarious position: Having spent hours tweaking their layouts, getting their styles just right and screening their advertisers only to third parties screw it all up.
What Can Be Done?
This raises the difficult question of what webmasters can do to prevent their sites from being modified without their permission?
The answer, unfortunately, is not much.
If you run your own server, you can likely force the use of encryption on your visitors and create a secure connection for every page load. This likely won’t stop malware on the end users’ computer, which accesses the page after it’s been decrypted, but it will stop alterations that take place in the middle, such as what CMA Communications was doing.
Beyond that, options are very limited. While it’s widely believed that this kind of behavior is not legal on copyright, trademark and other grounds, those theories haven’t truly been tested. Though courts have upheld the rights of sites to defend themselves and control how their sites are accessed, they haven’t said if ad replacement or unwanted site modification is a copyright infringement or other unlawful act unto itself.
But even if it is, where is the line drawn? If a browser displays your Web page poorly few are going to see that as an infringement but if someone takes your content and frames it with unwanted ads, then most feel very uneasy about that. However, there’s a wide gray area between the two and, with no legal judgments, no guidance on how to navigate it.
The issue is still legally very thorny and, to be frank, it’s about to get a lot more important.
Site modification and ad replacement aren’t going to go away. In fact, Kim Dotcom of Megaupload fame said that, when he launches his upcomging “Megabox” service to offer free music, he plans on replacing existing ads with his ads as part of the service.
If this comes to fruition, it may represent the first time such ad replacements are truly widespread. Though PageRage, a product of Sambreel, amassed some 4 million users at its height, that usage dropped quickly after Facebook took action against it. Furthermore, since it was targeted at just one site, Facebook, it was easy to stop both technically and legally.
Megabox may represent the first widespread use of ad injection and it could motivate others to follow suit. Resulting in more and more companies earning a profit off your content without your permission.
But even if you don’t run ads or don’t care about the revenue issues, the fact that more middlemen are getting between your site and your visitors should worry you. The time you take to craft your page, select your revenue strategy and create the content that goes on your site goes to waste if it’s lost in the translation of countless companies, filters and products.
While every webmaster knows how different browsers and devices impact their site we will soon have to start paying attention to haw other intermediaries impact it as well, making it harder than ever to deliver the desired experience to the person who wants it.
Thank You: A thanks goes to Marc Goldberg for providing the information on Sambreel and Yontoo.