Several Internet service providers (ISPs) are intentionally hijacking search queries to gain affiliate dollars, according to Reese Richman LLP, a New York Law Firm. Reese Richman filed a lawsuit Aug. 4 against one of the ISPs and the group behind the hijacking technology.
The Paxfire-ISP Hijacking Racket
According to Reese Richman, here’s how it works: Paxfire developed and patented a technology that would allow local ISPs to take control of a user’s search query when the user was targeting specified terms. Instead of connecting the search query as normal, the ISPs take users directly to a related site.
Why? The “related site” is typically an affiliate link related to the search term.
If a user was looking for the term “Bloomingdales,” for instance, they would be taken to the Bloomingdale’s website. The ISP would then get an affiliate kick-back for any purchases made on the site. According to evidence gathered by Nicholas Weaver and Christian Kreibich of the International Computer Science Institute at Berkeley, more than 165 terms are being redirected.
Aside from being at least a little bit brilliant, this monetization system is also (as Peter Eckersley puts it) “a deep violation of users’ trust and expectations about how the Internet is supposed to function.” Additionally, according to the Reese Richman case, the process violated several legal statutes.
Blocking the Hijackers
EFF, the foundation that Eckersley is a part of, has developed a Firefox add-on that prevents hijacking. Known as HTTPS Everywhere, the add-on makes all sites function as HTTPS, and thus prevents unannounced redirections.
But what about the big picture? Well, Google already found an effective way to prevent ISPs from redirecting their searches: Yelling at the ISPs. As reported by New Scientist, “The ISPs are understood to have stopped redirecting Google search traffic after the company complained to them earlier this year.”
Bing and Yahoo have yet to take any such measures, however, and their searches are still being redirected without warning for certain terms.