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Several Internet Service Providers Hijack And Replace Consumers' Search Results

Paxfire logo When you use a search engine like Google, Yahoo, or Bing you expect it to reliably deliver the search results the search engine was built to deliver, and not a replacement set of links from an intermediary -- without notice and without your consent. New Scientist reported that several internet service providers (ISPs) have modified and redirected these search results:

"The hijacking seems to target searches for certain well-known brand names only. Users entering the term "apple" into their browser's search bar, for example, would normally get a page of results from their search engine of choice. The ISPs involved in the scheme intercept such requests before they reach a search engine, however. They pass the search to an online marketing company, which directs the user straight to Apple's online retail website."

Commission Junction logo Last week, the New York-based law firm of Reese Richman filed a class-action lawsuit against one of the ISPs, its marketing firms, and Paxfire, the technology company which reportedly provides the equipment used to redirect and replace searches. Experts believe that the redirect process violates several statutes, including wiretapping laws. One of the marketing firms identified with the alleged serch redirection is Commission Junction. The ISP identified in the lawsuit is RCN.

Researchers at the International Computer Science Institute in Berkeley, California discovered the redirection and have monitored it for several months. Reportedly, a total of ten (10) ISPs were found to perform search results hijacking and replacement.

"The redirection can also produce unwanted results. A user wanting to read an article in The Wall Street Journal, for instance, might search for "wsj"; the redirection system would take them to a page offering subscription deals for the paper..."

If you want to learn more, there is a good article at the Electronic Frontier Foundation website:

"Major users of the Paxfire system include Cavalier, Cogent, Frontier, Fuse, DirecPC, RCN, and Wide Open West. Charter also used Paxfire in the past, but appears to have discontinued this practice."

It would seem that once again greed trumps common sense. The search results hijacking and replacement alters a basic function of how the Internet operates. You could say that users were "mugged" for their searches.

About three years ago, in an attempt to increase their revenues several ISPs installed deep-packet inspection software on their servers to server display targeted ads while tracking without notice and consent all of their subscribers Internet activity (e.g., e-mail, text, searches, web browsing). Consumers and privacy advocates protested strongly; both in both the United States and Europe.

Several ISPs testified in hearings before the U.S. Congress, and at least one ISP admitted to the secret spying on its subscribers. In their rush to make money, ISPs abused their subscribers' privacy and trust.  Several technology companies, like Adzilla and Phorm, were sued and either settled class-action suits against them or went out of business.

It would seem that we are about to repeat another round of privacy abuses by ISPs with their technology and marketing partners. Executives at these companies are either ignorant of or ope that consumers have forgotten the lessons of three years ago. Well, we have not forgetten. Privacy, disclosure, and consent still matter.

I predict several more class-action lawsuits will emerge, plus an updated list of ISPs to avoid doing business with because of privacy abuses. Not matter how they might spin it, it is not right to replace the standard search results from search engines with garbage for an ISP to build its revenues. Consumers' needs matter.


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Aug. 10, 2011 update: According to New Scientist, several ISPs have now stopped the search results hijacking and replacement:

Just stopping is insufficient given the data collected so far without notice and consent.


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