ISPs Redirecting Search Traffic for Profit

NewsScientist revealed that researchers at the International Computer Science Institute in Berkley have uncovered evidence that nearly a dozen US Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are actively redirecting user searches in search engines through a third party marketing company, almost certainly to earn a commission off of those searches.

Furthermore, there is strong implications that the ISPs may also be databasing their customers’ online behavior, including searches and websites visited, to display targeted advertising.

What The ISPs are Doing

When a customer of one of these ISPs searches for certain terms, such as “apple”, they would normally see a search engine results page, no doubt with Apple computer at the top of the list. These ISPs are instead intercepting that search so that the customer never sees that results page — instead they are redirected to a third party marketing companies and then redirected directly to Apple. The marketing company then earns an affiliate commission on any purchases made by that customer at Apple — and in theory the ISPs are getting a cut of that commission as well (and why else would they do it?)

The Berkley team found at least 165 search terms for which these ISPs were intercepting and redirecting, including: apple, dell, bloomingdales, and safeway.

Google apparently became aware of this behavior and complained to the ISPs (and “complain” may well have meant “threatened legal action”) and reportedly the ISPs have ceased redirecting Google searches. However searches made on Yahoo and Bing are still being redirected.

None of the ISPs involved have responded to requests to comment; however, the ISPs identified as redirecting are:

  • Cavalier
  • Cincinnati Bell
  • Cogent
  • Frontier
  • Hughes
  • IBBS
  • Insight Broadband
  • Megapath
  • Paetec
  • RCN
  • Wide Open West
  • XO Communication

It’s worth noting that the ISPs Charter and Iowa Telecom were found to be intercepting search traffic, but have since stopped.

Paxfire: the Source

In examining the redirected traffic the Berkeley team concluded that the service is being provided by the company Paxfire, which provides advertising services to ISPs. In addition to intercepting traffic, the ISPs pass on search data through Paxfire servers even for searches that are not intercepted.

The reason for this rests in a Paxfire patent application for a system to allow ISPs to create “a database of information about particular users,” gathering that data from search behavior as well as monitoring what websites users visit. The patent specifically notes that this information could be used to display targeted advertising.

Paxfire also declined comment from NewsScientist, however Paxfire is being sued along with one of the ISPs by Reese Richman — a law firm that specializes in consumer protection lawsuits. Reese Richman filed a class action lawsuit on August 4th and claims that Paxton provided the equipment used to redirect the searches and violated various laws, including wiretapping laws.

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