Dell & Google Distributing Spyware? Not Really…

In a post from the OpenDNS blog, David Ulevitch says Google turns the page? in a bad way, in it he says Dell and Google have teamed up and are installing software on Dell Computers that borders on being spyware. The issue is that they, meaning computer manufacturers like Dell, Gateway, Sony, etc, are installing this program called Browser Address Error Redirector to redirect users who mistype url’s or enter search terms in the address bar like they do a search box, to a search results page that is filled with sponsored listings, the ones that Dell and Google will make money from if users click on them. Here is why this could happen:

This page was generated because of one of these two reasons:

The web address you typed did not resolve correctly.

You typed a keyword query in the browser address bar.
This page is meant to provide you with helpful related content, including web search results and paid advertisements, based on the meaning of the web address/keyword query that you typed. This program can be uninstalled from the Control Panel “Add/Remove Programs” in Windows XP or “Control Panel > Program > Programs and Features” in Windows Vista. Look for the application named Browser Address Error Redirector. Older versions may be called GoogleAFE.

Sounds pretty innocent to me, if you take them at their word, but the ads, err I mean the search results they serve up are dominated by Google ads, in fact, on most users screens, they probably would not be able to see the actual Google search results. Now, David says it is Google and Dell who is doing it, but I wonder if it is Dell’s decision alone to decide how many ads to place on a search results page such as this? I know I decide how many I show on my site, but I have no exclusive deal with Dell to compare it to. I guess the terms and decision makers will come out when Dell and Google respond, if they haven’t already. David goes on to give some reasons why Dell and Google would do this.

The computer hardware business has razor-thin margins which means making a profit is tough. So the opportunity for Dell to get a recurring revenue stream from an existing customer long after the sale of the computer is more than just enticing, it?s huge. It also means a couple other things:

Dell and Google have an incentive to make it very hard for users to turn this off.
Because users can?t get rid of it, Dell and Google can get away with putting more ads on the page and pushing user-relevant content off the page. Source: Google turns the page? in a bad way

Now, I myself have not seen the redirector in action, most of the Dell computers that I end up seeing are re-imaged when they are received by the buyers, so, this crap does not live on those computers very long, and, as a matter of fact, the last one I looked at did much the same thing, but with a Microsoft results page that was a little more helpful than the Dell/Google page, it only had three sponsored listings and a most popular products listing before the search results. OpenDNS is a service users have to go get, and they do much the same thing, but they are way more friendly on their results page, adding a did you mean this link, like when you misspell something, at the top, and the search results right below it, with the sponsored listings on the right, much like the default Google search page. So, lots of commenters are saying OpenDNs only brought it up because they are in competition and that they are trying to make it sound worse than it is by throwing terms around like spyware and saying it is hard to remove. It is easy to find and obviously named in the Add/Remove programs applet in the control panel, so it is not hard to remove.

Danny Sullivan says:

I wouldn’t consider it spyware, but it certainly isn’t friendly ware. But you can understand why some people would think it’s spyware, when their computers seem to be acting in a strange way. Some searches brought up plenty of people who are confused by the software and what it is doing.

One of the most ironic things in all this is to compare what’s happening to the statements Dell and Google have made about consumer choice in the past. When the deal came out in May 2006, Dell said:

Our motivation is to deliver customers tools that enable them to search and organize information quickly and easily, right out of the box…Dell customers will have the option of choosing Microsoft as their default if they prefer. Source: Google & Dell’s Revenue-Generating URL Error Pages Drawing Fire

As Danny said, Google says they just have to change the defaults in IE 7, if they prefer, but that is something that Google said in the past was too hard for people to do. They even argued that Microsoft was taking the choice away from consumers by setting the search default to Microsoft’s search engine, something Google does in Firefox and now Dell computers. Pot meet kettle, kettle meet pot. They said their motivation was to allow their customers to search and organize information quickly, something this search results page does not do, it is geared for the quick cash.

Ryan Naraine says he has pinged Google to ask them about it, and he asks, what if the software has an exploitable software vulnerability? Something I am sure we will find out soon enough.