Federal Highway Administration puts the brakes on pop-up ads

A recent federal court ruling declared pop-up ads legal and inevitable. 'Alas, we computer users must endure pop-up advertising along with her ugly brother, unsolicited bulk e-mail, as a burden of using the Internet,' wrote Judge Gerald Bruce Lee of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.

But users at the Federal Highway Administration's Olympia Fields, Ill., Resource Center do not agree.

'Users should have a certain amount of freedom, or we're not taking full advantage of the resources,' Olympia Fields IT specialist Gary Dingle said.

The FHWA resource centers in Atlanta, Baltimore, Olympia Fields and San Francisco provide technical support, training and technology to FHWA division offices, state transportation departments and planning organizations.

'We need outside connections,' Dingle said. 'We have a lot of contact with people outside the highway administration. You could have a terminal environment without any options, but you want people to be creative and experiment.'

Pop-up ads had become a headache for many users at Olympia Fields.

'I had about 10 people ask' for something to kill the windows that open in front of or behind browsers, Dingle said. He tried several ad killers and wound up buying 20 licenses for Stopzilla from International Software Systems Solutions Inc. of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

'It does work,' he said. 'You only get a few of the ads' once the software is installed.

More pop-ups popping up

The volume of pop-ups is increasing dramatically, according to recent figures from NielsenNetRatings, a division of ACNielsen Corp. of New York. The company recorded 7.3 billion pop-up impressions in July 2003, an almost threefold increase over the same month a year earlier.

Dozens of software products are available to stop pop-ups. One site, www.popup-killer-review.com, lists 95 products, from AbsoluteShield to Zero Popup.

It's relatively easy to kill ads being delivered by a site you are currently visiting, said Robert Deignan, Stopzilla business development director, 'but adware and spyware is a whole different level.'

Deignan said only a minority of pop-ups comes from the site being visited. An estimated 80 percent are the work of adware and spyware, he said.

These are small programs, legal or illicit but almost always covert, that deliver third-party ads. They often get downloaded along with other software, such as peer-to-peer file sharing programs and e-mail customizing software.

'When you click on the agreement to install the software, you are accepting the adware with it,' Deignan said.

Adware spawns ads directly; spyware tracks browsing activity so that a third party can deliver ads based on the user's surfing habits.

Deignan said his company has identified about 11,000 adware or spyware programs. 'They all work in a similar fashion,' he said, which makes them easier to thwart.

Stopzilla's suppression engine blocks operation of the adware rather than removing it or blocking the ads. The reason is that removing the program that delivered the adware often does not remove the adware, and extracting it can be difficult. The offending program sometimes reinstalls itself.

To delete it, 'you are getting into the registry of your computer, which is a dangerous place to be,' Deignan said. The programs are small, so it is simpler to suppress them than try to remove them.

Stopzilla distinguishes between solicited and unsolicited windows, so that it can stop ads without blocking legitimate windows used in e-commerce applications.

'You can't kill all windows without interfering with functionality,' Deignan said.

The Stopzilla subscription service downloads a small, 238K program that connects to the company for daily updates to counter the latest pop-up tricks. A subscription costs from $29.95 per year for one user down to $11.90 per year each for 1,000 users.

But FHWA's Dingle said technology is not a full answer to the pop-up problem. Education is needed as well.

'I would suggest that people be careful about the stuff they download,' Dingle said. 'The users you educate don't need the technology.'

About the Author

William Jackson is freelance writer and the author of the CyberEye blog.

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