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Pop-Up Messages: Why they are evil and how we can improve this

by Flash Wilson, October 16th 2002

Click here to hear Flash read this article.

Yesterday, I received a pop-up message window on my Windows workstation. It offered degrees, and a number to call. I was absolutely incensed by this - my space had been invaded, completely unsolicited.

Today, there was an article in The Register about this - several other people had complained about this, and they had tracked down the tool used to send the pop-ups to Windows users worldwide. The Register's article is here.

While I am capable of firewalling this kind of message, I consider myself an unusual Windows user. Many home users will be unable to firewall this or will not have the knowledge to disable messages. (I'm thinking here of my parents and non-techie friends... and people like them everywhere).

I decided, while my hackles were still up, to send a letter by email to the company Direct Advertiser who produced this tool. Here it is.

Click here to cut straight to my suggestions for improvements to their tool.

Subject: Direct advertiser messages
From: directad@gorge.org
To: support@directadvertiser.com
Cc: directad@gorge.org
From flash@gorge.org Wed Oct 16 11:22:35 2002
Envelope-to: directad@gorge.org
Date: Wed, 16 Oct 2002 11:22:35 +0100

>From Flash Wilson, UNIX System Administrator, Webmaster

Dear Sir,

Yesterday, I received a pop-up spam offering me degrees, and read The Register's article today explaining how your tool had facilitated this.

I hope you will allow me to explain why I find it completely unacceptable, how these adverts are inappropriate to me, and finally my suggestions for how you could amend your tool and its behaviour to ameliorate the situation.

I work in the internet industry and only use Windows on my workstation to use specific software. However I make a choice not to use Windows for email due to the security risks. I don't receive mails or messages to that machine, and that's the way I like it, thanks. I also encourage my browser to ignore pop-ups and warn me about other things.

I found it offensive and extremely irritating to have a pop-up window telling me about these degrees - the subject was not the issue. I do not wish or expect a pop-up that I did not solicit.

I am incensed that you provide a tool to do so. Apart from the invasion of my system, of my space, privacy and time, the advert was entirely inappropriate.

Unlike most email spam it was difficult to trace the sender, which means that you are encouraging "direct advertisers" (or spammers) to mask their identity and be unaccountable. The only contact was a phone number which was invalid in my country; I imagine it was an American number but the point remains that if I had dialled the number as advertised it would not have worked. So you have provided a tool which may be for "direct advertising" but which was wasting resources both on my part and from the sender, as the advert was inappropriate for me anyway. This was not a direct, targeted advert for my needs. This was spam.

I am also registered with the Telephone Preference Service, the Email Preference Service, the Fax Preference Service and the Mail Preference Service such that I should not receive unsolicited mail or calls from anyone. I will now check whether unsolicited use of my bandwidth has contravened these and other regulations, and speak with local Trading Standards. Certainly you should be aware that your tool is being used to send spam worldwide, in a more invasive manner than usual, and almost certainly will contravene local laws at some point!

I find it highly unlikely that you will withdraw this tool unless forced to do so, so here are my recommendations for its better use:

- Within the window the originator's IP address and full contact details must appear, such that his ISP can be traced. This should be picked up automatically by your tool and sent out on every pop-up message.

- The window should be labelled as having been produced with your tool, with a website reference or similar for more information on the method of producing the pop-up.

- You should run a preference service such that people can register their IP / IP block with you and you undertake that your tool will never send messages to these IPs. You could amend the tool to update these IP lists daily from the internet so that any requests to send to blocked IPs are simply dropped.

Further to my last point I believe that the only way for you to maintain any credibility and goodwill with your tool would be responsible self-regulation e.g. with a preference/opt-out service, and to be seen to be willingly working with the internet industry to provide a service rather than a persistent irritation.

I hope that my email will be seen as constructive and welcome your swift reply.

Yours Faithfully,

Flash Wilson
UNIX System Administrator and Webmaster

I am also investigating whether this would constitute an offense under the Computer Misuse Act, with regard to unauthorised access, and will shortly be writing to Microsoft regarding the abuse of their net send feature.

If you feel strongly about this issue, let Direct Advertiser know, by emailing support@directadvertiser.com.

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