By Brian Krebs
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, July 28, 2006; D05
Warner Bros. Studios, home to Bugs Bunny, Scooby Doo and Harry Potter, said yesterday that it plans to terminate a business relationship with Zango Inc., an adware company that has been offering free games on the Warner Bros. Web site in exchange for permission to install a computer program that could push advertisements and pornography.
Zango is offering free downloads of games on a Warner Bros. Web page called "Fun Stuff" that appears to be for children. But when users click on the game, they're directed to a page that asks for permission to install on the computer a program called Zango Search Assistant. Hidden in the terms of agreement is the disclosure that users may receive adult-oriented ads through it.
A Warner Bros. spokesperson could not say yesterday how soon the Zango link would be removed from the Warner Brothers site, adding that the companies were in a contractual agreement and that lawyers would have to be involved.
It's unknown how long the link was on the site. However, after the link it was noted on blogs yesterday, consumer groups that work to protect children from the dangers of the Web began to speak out. The issue also revived the debate over mainstream corporations that support, through business relationships, the seedier side of the Web.
Companies such as Zango are best known for installing intrusive computer programs called adware, which deliver pop-up advertisements while computer users surf the Internet. Adware companies have built their businesses by serving online advertising for some of America's top corporations, but privacy advocates say the adware industry has a long and storied history of looking the other way while partners installed their wares through Web browser security flaws and on sites geared toward children.
Last year, New York Attorney General Eliot L. Spitzer sued one of Zango's closest competitors, Direct Revenue, for surreptitiously bundling adware with games and other software advertised as "free."
In a statement issued yesterday, Warner Bros. said that its agreement with Zango was contingent upon "Zango's ability to satisfy a rigorous set of adware/trackware integrity requirements" and that Zango agreed that "no one accessing Zango's network from the Warner Bros. site would receive inappropriate material."
"We take this issue very seriously at Warner Bros. and we have maintained all along that if Zango does not meet any one of these criteria, we will terminate the deal," the statement read.
Consumer groups said yesterday that this sort of controversy highlights the importance of mainstream companies policing their own Web sites.
"The Web doesn't get the same level of protection that these big companies dedicate to their offline properties," said Parry Aftab, executive director of WiredSafety, an organization dedicated to protecting kids online. "Too often they trust their sites to techies and marketing people. If you are in the kids space, you have a heightened obligation for doing things right, and you have to think before you engage with these kinds of partners."
Zango spokesman Steve Stratz said the promotion of its software on a kid-oriented site was a case of "ad inventory mix-up." While the company does not target its software at children, "it's not our job to police the Warner Bros. site," he said.
The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act bars Web site operators from collecting personal information about children under age 14 without parental consent. Zango notes that the person who agrees to install the software must be over 18. But the box that confirms the user's age on the Warner Bros. site is already checked, by default.
"If this doesn't violate the letter of the law, it certainly goes against the spirit of it," said Ari Schwartz, an attorney for the Center for Democracy & Technology, a Washington group that advocates for privacy.
"We have seen many adware players like Zango purposefully aiming their products at children, and I do think that raises concerns," said Schwartz, whose organization recently asked the Federal Trade Commission to prosecute Zango for violating consumer protection laws. The Center for Democracy & Technology "hears all the time from adults who say they got this kind of software on their computer because their children installed it."
Krebs is a staff writer for washingtonpost.com.