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Someone pointed me to an interesting blog post from StatCounter, that discusses how they were approached by an advertiser to place a ‘spyware’ cookie. What is a spyware cookie? It’s funny, I’ve always thought of “Spyware” as “Shitty desktop software that installs without user consent.” Which is, in fact, exactly what this wikipedia article says about it:

Spyware is computer software that collects personal information about users without their informed consent. The term, coined in 1995 but not widely used for another five years, is often used interchangeably with adware and malware (software designed to infiltrate and damage a computer respectively).

Interestingly enough, this entry has a strikingly different definition:

any software that covertly gathers information about a user while he/she navigates the Internet and transmits the information to an individual or company that uses it for marketing or other purposes

Ok, so I”m getting confused as hell. So next I did a Google Search for “spyware cookie” and clicked on the first entry and found this page.

Spyware Cookies are Intrusive
A spyware cookie is any cookie that crosses the line from helpful to intrusive. Spyware cookies are not interested in making your surfing experience better; the sole interest is to gather free marketing data to promote a sale of a product or service. Spyware cookies are placed on your machine by a consortium of websites that track your movement from one website to another.

Spyware cookies can track your every click and record all information you enter into non-encrypted online forms [...]

So I don’t know where the jackass from “” got his education in online technology, but a cookie is a text file. I will personally pay someone $100 if they explain to me how a TEXT file can track your every click and record all information you enter into non-encrypted online forms. But really, what IS the proper definition? Well, I don’t like any of the three above, so why not throw in an academic’s perspective while we’re at it — namely here’s a quote from Ben Edelman’s site:

[...]“spyware” software — programs that monitor user activities, and transmit user information to remote servers and/or show targeted advertisements. As distinguished from the design model anticipated by’s definition of adware (“any software application in which advertising banners are displayed while the program is running”), these spyware programs run continuously and show advertisements specifically responding to the web sites that users visit. Companies making programs in this latter category include Gator (recently renamed Claria), WhenU, and 180Solutions. Other spyware programs include keystroke recorders, screen capture programs, and numerous additional software systems that surreptitiously monitor and/or transmit users’ activities.

Wow, similar, but yet again, different! Ok, so since everyone and their mother seems to define spyware, I will too! I see a couple key themes: shitty, intrusive, advertising, personal information, communication, uberpowerful. So here goes!

Spyware, an uberpowerful software application that provides rather shitty and intrusive advertising on a desktop computer which communicates your personal information to some shady 14 year old in a basement in Oklahoma.

Spread the word! I won’t be the one to put this on wikipedia, but I dare someone to try! In all seriousness though — if we as an industry can’t get together an actually define what ‘spyware’ is, how can we stop it?

To pop or not to pop

March 9th, 2007

Over the past two years at Right Media on more than one occasion have I talked to an end user who was frustrated with ‘popups’ on his computer. The emails that have been sent can become pretty extreme. I remember notes like, “Burn in hell, I hope you die”, “Stop those f*cking popups you f*ckers” or “Get this sh*t off my computer!!” (you get the point). Although these are rather extreme responses, there is most definitely a huge misunderstanding of popups out in the world.

First off, what is a popup? In it’s simplest form, it’s an advertisement that is shown in it’s own window. Popups get onto your computer via two methods: the websites you visit or some software installed on your machine. In my mind, it’s the latter that has given popups such a terrible terrible name. There is nothing more despicable than spyware and I am strongly opposed to any valueless (or minimal value) software that later bombards you with popups.

Ok, we’ll write about desktop software later (trust me, I’ll get all riled up if I start now), so lets stick to normal websites for now. So first, the most basic question, why do websites show popups? It’s not difficult for them to integrate an ad in their page, so why do they have to open a new one? Well, the answer is pretty simple — popups work. People click, convert, interact, they do everything more with popups, even though they hate them! I’ve never quite understood this myself, but basically you are 10 to 100 times more likely to do something with a popup compared to a simple banner ad, and this translates into vastly higher rates.

If you think about it, it kind of makes sense. Simple ads blend into pages and are easy to miss. You might be flipping through pages quickly and not paying attention to any of the ads. Popups, and especially popunders break the normal flow of your web browsing. A popup requires an action (closure of the window), and a popunder gives a quick “hey whatsup” when you think you’re ending your browsing session. Now web sites need to make money off the content they provide to you (generally for free), and hence they want to make the most they can from the ads they show you. If a site can double it’s revenue by showing you one popup for each session, then of course there’s a huge incentive for them to do this.

So I’m starting to sound pro-popup… well, I’m not! Here’s the thing, I have popup blocking software installed, yet I continue to get popups from webpages. I have actively set my browser to not show me popup advertisements, yet I still do? Isn’t there something wrong there? Lets think about it this way:

1 – Do I have the right to refuse popup advertisements from a website who’s content I get for free?
2 – Does the advertiser have a right to bypass my popup blocker?

Well, I’m shitty at legaleze, so lets just think morally here. On the first, I think that I have the right to refuse popup ads. I’m opening a site in one window, I give the site the rights to display content in that one window. If they want, they can show ads all throughout the damn window, if they’re site is unusable I’ll just stop visiting. For example, check out (screenshot below). The number of ads is just ridiculous. But here’s the thing, it doesn’t actually bother me, because I’ll simply go out and find another website that can supply me with cheatcodes that isn’t going to bombard me with ads. So in short — yes, I feel strongly that I have the right to block popups. Just think about it technically. On a windows machine, every new window is a new application process — so in essence, I’m saying I have the right to block a website from launching a new application process on my machine.

Ads on

So on #2 – My stance here is pretty similar to #1 — A popup is a new window. When I load a web page then I grant that page the right to place content in that space. I do not give them the right to open a new process and throw popups in there! I’ve seen some really raunchy popups, and no, you do not have the right to bypass my software! Earlier today I got an extremely raunchy ad for ‘sex-search’ (I won’t post a screenshot), but lets say the url is here in case you’re curious: sex search landing page.

Ok, so basically I’ve just said that I think popups shouldn’t exist — well — not really. Here’s my proposal, rather, a ‘truce’. People hate popups, but they work, they make money, so it makes sense for the websites we like to better monetize their inventory so that they can provide us with better content.

  1. Publishes will limit popups to once per user per day
  2. Publishers will allow users to ‘opt-out’ of popups
  3. Publishers will ensure that all popup ads are ‘clean’, quality advertisements (see screenshot below)
  4. Users will remove popup bypassing software, or, ‘opt-in’ to popups for their favorite websites

Ok, so I’m dreaming and such a ‘truce’ will never happen. First off, the misperception out there about popups, people hate them and will probably never actively ‘opt-in’ to receive them from quality websites. Second, there will always be that site (or many many of them) that try to take advantage of this truce. What I can hopefully motivate you to think about is who’s getting paid for you to look at that pop. Assuming you’re clean of adware, it’s probably the website you just visited, so don’t complain too much, you’re browsing the web for free aren’t you! Site owners — Don’t abuse the power you have over a user’s browser. If you do choose to do popups, limit the frequency and keep them tasteful.