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ISP Hijacks Google Homepage

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Controversy is brewing over a Canadian ISP inserting customer messages at the top Google’s homepage, brought to you by Yahoo.

ISP Hijacks Google Homepage Well, Yahoo’s not an official sponsor, but the message was co-branded with a Rogers Internet message warning customers nearing their monthly bandwidth limit.

Los Angeles-based technology consultant and Network Neutrality advocate Lauren Weinstein was clued in by "a concerned reader" that Rogers was testing its Internet Subscriber Notification Service that uses java script code developed by in-browser marketing firm PerfTech to deliver the Rogers Yahoo Hi-Speed Internet messages.

Weinstein writes, "While Rogers’ current planned use for this Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) and modification system…is for account status messages, it’s obvious that commercial ISP content and ads (beyond the ISP logos already displayed) would be trivial to introduce through this mechanism."

Rogers justified the program by saying it was just a way for customers to keep track of their usage, and noted that there was no interference with the search. They also denied there was any "deep package" inspection going on, or that there were any privacy issues.

But critics say it’s very basic premise – modifying a webpage at the network level – that is disturbing. TechDirt CEO Mike Masnick relates how inserting corporate messages violates an unwritten contract where customers expect their ISPs to remain unobtrusive "dumb pipes."

"[ISPs] feel that they are more important than the content and services you are using. This is what leads to all those network neutrality debates, where the ISPs forget that they’re providing just a pipe and think that they are the most important part of the process and have the right to change how everything else works. "

Masnick doesn’t believe this is justification for Network Neutrality legislation, but Sarah Lai Stirland at Wired expects it "become Exhibit A" among proponents.

Canadian blogger Steven Hodson’s complaints mirror the complaints made in the United States about the current state of the ISP market, which involves lack of competition, too much telco influence in government, and no government oversight:

"The things is that while it is the Americans that seem most worried about this intrusion by the ISP just about every Canadian knows that chances are nothing at all is going to be done to protect the consumer from this type of thing continuing just as nothing will be done about the rampant traffic shaping that is going on."  

Google hasn’t yet responded to request for comment regarding Rogers’ modification of its homepage, but Google’s webspam head Matt Cutts called the event "uncool." Chances are good Google won’t like it, and Cutts calls it the "only chance to see the word ‘Yahoo!’ on Google’s home page in three different places."  

ISP Hijacks Google Homepage
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  • RecentCoin

    You guys are about, oooo, let me see, 15-20 years too late on this.

    AOL has been doing this basically since it’s inception. AOL was worse though, because AOL actually practiced censorship. Since AOL chose to cache web sites on it’s servers and chose what to cache, it also, in some cases, chose to edit what information, if any, appeared from the sites it chose to cache. This is the source of AOL’s reputation as “not the real internet”.

    Many places do this using a proxy server, a simple frameset, and a script snippet. It’s retardedly easy to do. Most of the free proxy servers do this and have done so since their inception. Google for free proxy and test it for yourself.

    About.com does this in the most annoying fashion possible. They create a top frame before displaying any link that goes off their site. The top frame is used to drive ads to the user.

    Ultimately, the marketplace will speak. They will either move because the notices are annoying and invasive – a la the “free ad supported ISP’s”. Or they will not and we’ll see more of this in the future.

    I really fail to see why everyone has their undies in a twist on this. This horse left the barn at least a decade ago and it’s a bit late to try to chase him down now. This technology is in use all around you – all the time. It’s used to drive ads on many of sites that many of us like looking at every day.

  • Brett Glass

    I’ve made this comment on a few other blogs, but I’m going to make it here as well because it’s appropriate given the comments above.

    Network neutrality means not using one’s control of the pipe to disadvantage competitive content or service providers. For example, if you’re a cable company that offers VoIP, network neutrality means not blocking customers’ use of other VoIP providers.

    Network neutrality does NOT mean that a provider can’t “frame” pages (as do many providers — especially those like Juno which provide inexpensive or free service) or send them informative messages via their browser.

    Let’s step back and take a dispassionate look at what Rogers is really doing here. They need to get a message to a customer. Like any experienced ISP, they know that there’s a good chance that e-mail won’t be read in a timely way, if at all. (We, as an ISP, find that our customers constantly change their addresses — often after revealing them online and exposing them to spammers — without any notice, and often let the mailboxes that we give them fill up, unread, until they exceed their quotas and no more can be received.) The Windows Message Service once worked to send users messages, but only ran on Windows and is now routinely blocked because it’s become an avenue for pop-up spam. Snail mail? Expensive and slow… and the whole point of the Internet is to do things faster and more efficiently than that. Give users an special program to display messages from the ISP? Users have too many things running in the background, cluttering their computers, already — so no one could blame them if they didn’t install it. (Also, many users won’t install an application for fear of viruses, and alternative operating systems likely would not run the software.) Display a different page than the user requested? Perhaps, but that certainly comes much closer to “hijacking” than what Rogers is doing. Display a message in the user’s browser window (where we know he or she is looking) along with the Web page, and let the user “dismiss” it as soon as it’s noticed? Excellent idea. A wonderful, simple, unobtrusive, and (IMHO) elegant solution to the problem.

    Now comes Lauren Weinstein — known for drawing attention to himself by sensationalizing tempests in a teapot — who has never run an ISP but seems to like to dictate what they do. Lauren claims that the sky will fall if ISPs use this nearly ideal way of communicating with their customers.

    Contrary to the claims of Mr. Weinstein’s “network neutrality squad” (who have expanded the definition of “network neutrality” to mean “ISPs not doing anything which we, as unappointed regulators, do not approve”), this means of communication does not violate copyrights. Why? First of all, the message from the ISP appears entirely above, and separate from, the content of the page in the browser window. It’s not much different that displaying it in a different pane (which, by the way, the browser might also be able to do — but this is better because it’s less obtrusive and unlikely to fail for the lack of Javascript or distort the page below). The display can’t be considered a derivative work, because no human is adding his own creative expression to someone else’s creation. A machine — which can’t create copyrighted works or derivative ones — is simply putting a message above the page in the same browser window.

    It isn’t defacement, because the original page appears exactly as it was intended — just farther down in the window. And it isn’t “hijacking,” because the user is still getting the page he or she requested.

    What’s more, there’s no way that it can be said to be “non-neutral.” The proxy which inserts the message into the window doesn’t know or care what content lies below. The screen capture in Weinstein’s blog showed Google, but it just as easily could have been Yahoo!, or Myspace, or Slashdot. For the same reason, it can’t be said to be an invasion of privacy, because the software isn’t looking at the content of the page above which it is inserting the message.

    In short, to complain that this practice is somehow injurious to the author of the original page is akin to an author complaining that his book has been injured by being displayed in a shop window along with another book by someone he didn’t like. (Sorry, sir, but the merchant is allowed to do that.)

    Nor is what Rogers is doing a violation of an ISP’s “common carrier” obligations (even if they were considered to be common carriers, which under US law, at any rate, they are not). Common carriers have been injecting notices into communications streams since time immemorial (“Please deposit 50 cents for the next 3 minutes”). And television stations have been superimposing images on program content at least since the early 1960s, when (I’m dating myself here) Sandy Becker’s “Max the burglar” dashed across the screen during kids’ cartoon shows and the first caller to report his presence won a prize. (The game was called “Catch Max.”) And in the US, Federal law — in particular, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — protects ISPs from liability for content they retransmit whether or not they are considered to be common carriers.

    There are sure to be some folks — perhaps people who are frustrated with their ISPs for other reasons — who will take this as an opportunity to lash out at ISPs. But most customers, I think, will recognize this as a good and sensible way for a company to contact its customers. Our small ISP is looking into it. In fact, because the issue is being raised, we’re adding authorization to do it to our Terms of Service, so that users will be put on notice that they might receive a message through their browsers one day. I suppose it’s possible that a customer might dislike this mode of communication and go elsewhere, but I suspect that most of them will appreciate it. In the meantime, let’s just say “no” to regulation of the Internet.

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