It's been a long time since we've seen any of those old ad scams that reset the browser's home page and changes the default settings - but they're back. And this time, the ad is working its way through Facebook - and benefiting Microsoft's Bing search engine. (Techmeme)
The word "scam" is a loaded one because it implies that the people behind it are doing something illegal - and that doesn't necessarily seem to be the case. What they're doing may be deceptive but the folks who click a mouse button to grant permission without reading the fine print are certainly opting-in to allow a third-party to change their settings - just like they would do to activate the pop-up windows back in the early days of Web surfing.
This issue surfaced when Advertising Age reported on an eMarketer report that found an unknown site called make-my-baby.com was the third largest advertiser on Facebook, buying 1.75 billion ad impressions in the third quarter. That's when Matt Cutts, a software engineer at Google, started poking around - and posted his findings on Buzz. He wrote:
Visiting make-my-baby.com instantly prompts you to install a browser plugin. The "terms and conditions" link takes you to http://mmb.bingstart.com/terms/ which has phrases like "If Chrome ("CR") is installed on your PC we may change the default setting of your home page on CR to Bingstart.com."
...If make-my-baby.com is Facebook's 3rd biggest advertiser, I wonder how many people are installing this software without reading the fine print that says "Installing the toolbar includes managing the browser default search settings and setting your homepage to bing.com" ?
Now, nothing here implies that Microsoft is even hip to what's going on. After all, this is affiliate marketing and there are plenty of third-party companies out there who find creative ways - or revive old ways - of getting people to agree to terms and conditions in exchange for a plug-in that unlocks a game or some other feature. It's not necessarily illegal when users offer their consent. But it certainly reeks of unethical behavior.
More importantly, it also prompts a question over the advertising practices. If this is the third-largest advertiser on Facebook - behind AT&T and Match.com - then it certainly must have caught the attention of someone at that company. Is anyone watching what these advertisers are doing or are they just humming all the way to the bank with a fat check?
Again, this isn't to say that Facebook is doing anything wrong either - but for a company that's constantly under the spotlight for its practices around user privacy and other sensitive matters, one might think that the company would keep a closer eye on what it's advertisers are subjecting the users to.
Then again, there are plenty of people on Facebook who are doing some pretty crazy things - like downloading any and every game or posting their new cell phone numbers on their profiles. It's no wonder that this third-party company saw an opportunity to make a few bucks on an audience that often leaves its guard down.