Browser boosters busted on privacy

There’s no such thing as a free lunch — especially on the Web. That’s the message of a report from the Privacy Foundation and the University of Denver. Sites may use the word ”free” when referring to their downloadable ”browser extensions,” but they’re not giving you something out of the goodness of their hearts, says the Privacy Foundation’s Richard Smith. Browser extensions typically fill in forms, provide customized browsers, link to price comparison sites or limit children to safe sites, without charge.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch — especially on the Web. That’s the message of a report from the Privacy Foundation and the University of Denver. Sites may use the word ”free” when referring to their downloadable ”browser extensions,” but they’re not giving you something out of the goodness of their hearts, says the Privacy Foundation’s Richard Smith. Browser extensions typically fill in forms, provide customized browsers, link to price comparison sites or limit children to safe sites, without charge.

”The idea is that they’re providing this free service to you, but there’s a whole other purpose behind the products — to gather data about you to sell you stuff. And companies don’t want to talk about that,” Smith says.

The report, out Wednesday, looks at 15 browser extensions, all of which offer users free software that in some way enhances the Web experience. Only three had sufficient traffic to show up in Media Metrix’s ratings: custom browser maker NeoPlanet (2 million users), surf-to-win site All Advantage (2.8 million), and form and password manager Gator (5.6 million).

”Users are not being told what’s happening,” says report author David Martin, a computer science professor at the University of Denver. Researchers found that all of the sites exhibited a ”lack of candor” about privacy considerations.

Often the language was complex enough that it was hard to tell exactly what was being said. An example is NeoPlanet.com, which produces specialty browsers for movies such as Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Nutty Professor, The Flintstones and the Austin Powers films.

Studios pay NeoPlanet to build the browsers, then use them to track specific information about fans. For example, fans who download the Grinch browser are tracked so Universal can see what entertainment sites they visit. The information is collected in the aggregate — individual surfing habits are neither stored nor sold.

Sometimes, however, user registration information is used to target ads sold through NeoPlanet. For example, Metricom, which sells wireless modems, had its ads served only to customers where its service was available.

NeoPlanet president Drew says his company is working hard to do what’s right: ”It’s a real problem if companies in our space make users feel exploited.”

The problem is ”this kind of software has a tendency to masquerade as some sort of neat toy,” Martin says. ”No one has gone to the trouble of telling users, ‘Look, this is a business exchange. I’m giving you software, and you’re going to give me access to everything you see.’ ”

But it’s an easy fix, he says. ”All these firms have to do is rewrite their privacy policies.”

Another fix is time. Most of the companies looking to make money by collecting information about users are finding that it doesn’t pay the bills. Three of the 15 sites Martin surveyed have gone out of business. Several others have so changed their services that the findings of the report no longer apply to their business model. ”I think most of this stuff will go by the wayside,” says the Privacy Foundation’s Smith. ”But a few will be left around, and that’s of concern.”

Author: Elizabeth Weise

News Service: USA TODAY

URL: http://www.usatoday.com/life/cyber/tech/review/crh765.htm