ISP Inserts Its Own Messages Into Google

from the a-bit-intrusive dept

For most people, broadband ISPs are really little more than dumb pipes. We want our connections to the internet and that’s all. Many people use third party email offerings (especially from portals) and set their own home pages. Unfortunately, being a dumb pipe is the last thing that these broadband providers want. It makes it a lot more difficult to communicate with customers and especially to try to charge them for premium services. It appears that Canadian ISP Rogers is testing a system where it inserts its own messages into Google’s home page. In the screenshot, Rogers inserts a huge message at the top of Google’s homepage to let a user know that he or she is approaching the monthly bandwidth limit on the account. This is troublesome for a number of reasons. There’s simply no reason to hijack a site like Google (and, in fact, I’d imagine that the folks at Google wouldn’t be particularly pleased about an ISP messing with its page). If an ISP really wants to communicate with people, why not just pop up a proxy page when the browser is first opened? Most importantly, though, it shows how some ISPs feel about its position in the value stream. They feel that they are more important than the content and services you are using. This is what leads to all those network neutrality debates, where the ISPs forget that they’re providing just a pipe and think that they are the most important part of the process and have the right to change how everything else works. This doesn’t mean they should be regulated — but it does mean that both users and service providers (such as Google) should make it abundantly clear to ISPs like Rogers that this will not be tolerated.

Filed Under: , ,
Companies: google, rogers

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “ISP Inserts Its Own Messages Into Google”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
micron866 says:

So how would an ISP know when I first open my browser? The browser does not do anything special when it first loads compared to subsequent page loads. If you mean the browser start page/home page, note that most users change this, whether intentionally or thanks to malware.

The ISP surely can find other ways of communicating such service information, such as through email. Of course, there’s no guarantee that it can be read.

You may think this is high intrusive, and indeed it is. However, a precedent has already been set elsewhere. Television, as we have it today, is already having significantly altered content. How many TV content producers are happy to see their show plastered with various banners and logos? Sometimes I find important parts of the screen (captions or subtitles usually) obscured by the service provider’s own banners. And what about all those squished or sped up credits? Do you think the people listed in the credits appreciate being pushed aside just so the service provider can announce the next show?

micron866 says:

Re: Re: Re:

Relying on an 8 hour interval is not fool proof. If I leave GMail or something similar running, there will be HTTP requests every few minutes as it polls for new emails. Other programs and even Windows itself may also send out HTTP requests as part of a regular procedure to check for updates.

All in all, the traditional solution is still the best: email. Not too intrusive and just about as much chance of getting read.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: changing your start page

It’s be easier just proxying requests or munging DNS like motels do, so that requests go to a crappy banner page until the user clicks the “Yes I saw your announcement crap” to make it go away.

And I wasn’t surprised to hear which company it was. I may be biased, but I seem to see them involved in this kind of shenanigans often. I’m glad I’m in another wink-wink-don’t-compete area for cable access, and not subject to their interpretation of service.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“So how would an ISP know when I first open my browser?”

-> You send out an http request automatically anyways. Whenever you are using your internet connection, they know or have the capability to know already. This would not be hard.

“The ISP surely can find other ways of communicating such service information, such as through email. Of course, there’s no guarantee that it can be read.”

-> E-Mail would have been my first thought as well. They could send it to your ‘free account’ they provide (most ISPs do for free anyways around here) as well as one you designate when you setup your account.

“You may think this is high intrusive, and indeed it is. However, a precedent has already been set elsewhere. Television, as we have it today, is already having significantly altered content.”

That’s a bit different. You’re comparing different industries inappropriately. One can not go watch the newest episode of Lost on Comedy Central. However, if I switch ISPs I can get to the same internet. ISPs are more like computer Operating Systems. They are supposed to provide the means for you to use other things.

Most OS’s that get good reviews get them for the unobtrusiveness and ease of use. An exception is Windows, but only because of DirectX in the home market.

“Sometimes I find important parts of the screen (captions or subtitles usually) obscured by the service provider’s own banners. And what about all those squished or sped up credits? Do you think the people listed in the credits appreciate being pushed aside just so the service provider can announce the next show?”

-> I’ve often wondered about why they ruin their own content (again, take a look into how a TV show is made) by obscuring important bits. If its a news thing and its an emergency I forgive it, but telling me some show I don’t care about is coming soon and making it so I can’t read what the Spanish guy is saying is a bit annoying. Wish I had taken that in High School rather than German.

I’ve also wondered about the credits policy. I know they have to have them, otherwise they wouldn’t bother beyond the opening, but when they play movies on TV they even do that. Must be a time thing. That I can understand. Some movie credits go on for 15 minutes or so.

I believe Techdirt already covered a story of an ISP or something modifying a website to put in different ads or something, and I think there was a lawsuit involved as it obscured ads someone had payed for. Going to have to try to find it now . . .

Vincent Clement says:

Re: Customer's problem, not Google's

I don’t think Google is in a position to object

Really? You don’t think that Google would be opposed to a Yahoo branded ISP?

the website owners couldn’t control how their sites were being viewed, that control was in the hands of their viewers

Except that the website is being altered by a third-party before it reaches the viewer.

Jean-Marc Liotier (user link) says:

ISP liability ahead !

Violating copyright law, becoming a de facto publisher, being liable for copyright infrightment… The moment an ISP decides it can and should interfere with traffic it ceases to be a common carrier – a simple pipe. That is not only a bad idea from an end-user point of view, this is also definitely not in the ISP’s interest !

Mike (profile) says:

Re: DEBUNK - This is fear-mongering

Um, Seth, I need to debunk your debunk. First of all, we never said that the sky was falling or that this was awful. We just described what was being done and pointed out why it was *troublesome*, which it is. That doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world. Can you please explain how we were fear-mongering?

Besides, you’re not debunking the actual story. You are simply setting up a strawman (“the internet is falling!”) and debunking that. The facts are correct that this ISP is experimenting with inserting its own messages into Google.

I’d ask that you retract your statement.

comboman says:

I disagree

This doesn’t mean they should be regulated — but it does mean that both users and service providers (such as Google) should make it abundantly clear to ISPs like Rogers that this will not be tolerated.

It is quite naive to think that this will happen automagically through goodwill or those mysterious “market forces”. Net neutrality will only happen if it is regulated, and it must happen soon before the non-neutral net becomes entrenched.

Anonymous Coward says:

Bad precedent

How long before the content alteration is not so obvious? Seems a logical next step for ISPs to block ads for competitors, remove criticism of themselves, etc. Or maybe along with some industry giant paying for faster connections than their startup competitor they also pay for certain features to be disabled on their competitor’s site? There is simply no upside to this approach when compared to sending users to a designated page when opening their browser like hotels and others do today. There is, however, the potential for a huge downside.

Woadan says:

IANAL (I Am Not A Lawyer), and I do not play one on TV. But I have to wonder if Google (or anyone else so infringed) might not be able to claim copyright infringement on this. Most web pages do have copyright statements at the bottom. If inserting non-Google text changes their content in some way, it might be considered an infringement.

I used to work for Verizon Online, and I know that they fear being “just” a dumb fat pipe. But they also don’t do a very convincing job of being a content provider, so they aren’t in a very good position to change the fact that most users just want the connection from them, nothing else.

It was always a struggle to get users to check their email or the home page so they’d know about important issues that might impact their service. Letting them know they were approaching the point where they’d reached some limit, as Rogers was doing here, seems a bit innocuous, though their methodolgy was obnoxious.

You can bet the user will be calling when they get their bill for going over the limit, especially if it is way over. So I can appreciate Rogers’ trying to get the information in front of the user. The problem is that this method sets a bad precedent. What if the ISP starts letting other types of messages be delivered this way, such as a partner with a product to sell?

When I worked there, Verizon’s ToS stated that you were _required_ to check your primary email account daily in case we contacted you concerning your service or your account. I would not be surprised if Rogers’ ToS has simliar verbage. But we know people just click through agreeing to the ToS without reading it. And we also know that people ignore their ISP mailboxes.

I don’t envy the ISPs in this case, because they’ll get skewered for these types of things, and they should be. But they’ll get skewered for not notifying the users, even though they did via email.


Anonymous Coward says:

Am I the only one wondering why they don’t just email the account owner?

when i was in Canada they had newly implemented the transfer limits and thats how my ISP warned us when we reached 85% of our limit then again at that time i was pretty broke and i was so scared to go over limit and would have to pay extra that i checked daily my accounts detail page (were it specified my consumption)

then again I was with Videotron

wes says:

Re: Am I the only one wondering why they don't jus

Nobody uses their email service because they pretty much sold out to yahoo mail. Why on earth would the consumer pay for an email account on their residential connection that is freely available without the tie to the rogers service?

Enter this new “service”

Now they use THEIR “partnership” to advertise on the competitions pages. Congratulations Rogers, you have set the bar even lower than before.

Rich Kulawiec says:


I read your comments, Seth, but I’m going to disagree with you
on this one.

What Rogers is doing here is similar to what Comcast has done (sending fake RST packets) and what Verizon has done (falsifying DNS query results) — they’re manipulating traffic at the protocol level, which is not only fraught with peril but violates basic principles of network neutrality.

This is bad for everyone. It’s bad for end-users because the effects of protocol-level manipulation may cause unpredictable
application behavior (e.g., Verizon’s DNS changes break anti-spam
measures that use domain non-existence as a check). It’s bad
for content providers because their carefully-prepared web site or RSS feed or mail message may be mangled in transit, which may well cause users to blame them for it. And it’s bad for ISPs, because it exposes them to tremendous liability, e.g., “If Rogers can insert its own announcements on web pages, then why isn’t it marking porn sites/flagging terrorist sites/doing whatever else that someone with an agenda and no understanding of the Internet wants done in order to score political points this week?”

Rogers isn’t
doing this as a “service” to their customers. Like all monopolies with a stranglehold on the last mile, they couldn’t care less.
They’re doing this — that is, spending the money necessary to set it up — because they intend to profit from it.

Oldster says:

“The facts are correct that this ISP is experimenting with inserting its own messages into Google.”

The Rogers message appears in the same browser window, but above the Google page, not in the Google page. The Google page was not modified. Big difference. Not likely the user would think it was coming from Google and the purpose and intent of the Rodgers message is clear.

Not saying I like it or agree with what they are doing, just pointing out that Rodgers isn’t modifying the Google page.

Anonymous Coward says:

I wonder how Canadian’s would feel if every time they called someone on their mobile phones if they got to listen to an advertisement for Viagra or some new Visa service before their call was connected?

What part of Common Carrier don’t people get?

I’ll tell you this, if I spent tens of thousands of dollars (or more) to have a site developed and it met very specific visual requirements and Rogers fu&^$ed with it I would have my lawyer crawl so far up their ass they’d think they we’re getting a prostate exam with a backhoe.

Chris (profile) says:

To Oldster and and Anonymous Coward:
You say that the message is not “in Google’s page” but “above it”
Umm, browser windows generally display one <html></html> block within which is one <body></body> block. So any valid content *is* by definition in Google’s page.

And if Rogers is relying on browsers to display invalid content then the matter is, frankly, worse because their tehcnology is using an extremely ugly and unreliable hack.

Seth Finkelstein (user link) says:


Mike, the tone of the story gives a very misleading impression of the situation. It conveys that this is something that the Canadian ISP Rogers cooked-up, with a scary and alarmist take on it (“hijack” and focusing on Google), rather than a product that’s been kicking around for years and is in use elsewhere. It does a typical geek reasoning error, in that if it isn’t immediately apparent to someone who knows nothing about the topic why an application is implemented a certain way rather than the way the geek – who again knows zero about the topic – has decided it should be implemented, the implication is then made that the application is cover for something malicious. Then it exploits the misreporting for political effect, with “They feel that they are more important than the content and services you are using”, when there’s no evidence that this particular situation is anything but service messages (note the advertising implications aren’t novel, the company which mades the product touts them as a feature for subsized ISPs).

I think that qualifies for “debunking”

Shun says:

I believe that this tactic is illegal

But, and there’s always a but…this kind of thing happened all the time when your isp was the lowly college lan. At least, whenever I logged in (using telnet, no less) there always popped up the Message of the Day (MOTD). Yes, that was comforting, because some days it felt like it would take the old 14.4 Sportster days to connect. So, we read/ignored the MOTD and went on with our lives.

Unfortunately, I believe that doing this over another person’s legitimate web page is illegal. Say I have my homepage set to LOLCATS (why, I have no idea, but hypothetically…) when I open up my browser, it shouldn’t display a message from my ISP, then my home page a couple of spaces underneath. That’s so uncouth.

OK, couldn’t find a good example, but here is a splash page which actually functions as a splash page. If your ISP is doing this, they’re probably not breaking the law.

I wonder what the law is in this scenario: You turn on your computer, log into your network, and open up your browser. Now, you’ve already authenticated to your ISP, so you shouldn’t have to go through any further hoops, but for some reason the ISP insists on showing you their corporate splash page each time you re-invoke your browser. Does that seem fair?

Well, leave it up to the purists to decide. I think any company that does what Rogers is doing is either going to have to stop, or look for a new business model.

One thing I know: it does not pay to take on Google. They tend to buy things, like big galumphing Canadian ISP’s.

Steve R. (profile) says:

Re: I believe that this tactic is illegal

Regretfully, we seem to be evolving into a society where large content distributors seem to have the unilateral authority to manipulate how you receive content, to label you a thief, and to penalize you.

Your “legitimate” webpage, dream-on.

The Sony rootkit debacle and the HP Pretexting scandal demonstrate that they believe they can trespass onto your turf (to protect their business) with impunity since you (the consumer) have no rights.

Chris says:

Everyone wants to whinge about something.

I thin this is a great idea. All too often you hear about techninoobs spending $100s for going over download caps. Not having any experiance with Roger’s or canadian ISPs in general I can not comment on their service in general, but i think this is a good step for any ISP who limits data and charges for excess. I wish my ISP did the same.

It’s also worth noting that google themselves ‘modify’ webpages when you visit them using google images search. I notice no one complaining about this.

Please excuse the spelling. I find myself without my spell checker today 🙁

Michael Evans (profile) says:

Break them up just like long distance

The solution is easy for this one. You have a structure which like roads, water, sewer, and power, is at best a limited natural monopoly. The local community should actually be responsible for providing access to a more centralized data-exchange that you can purchase long-haul service from.

However the easiest way to transition out of this situation is to correctly break out the actual ‘pipe’ providers as private utilities. Force those to be the dumb pipes, and let whatever content providers want to buy in to ports at the dumb-pipe’s peering locations for ultra-cheep inter-network access, or provide over the normal Internet do so.

Brett Glass says:

Not a "network neutrality" issue

I’ve made this comment on a few other blogs, but I’ll make it here as well because it’s especially germane.

Network neutrality means not using one’s control of the pipe to disadvantage competitive content or service providers. For example, if you’re a cable company that offers VoIP, network neutrality means not blocking customers’ use of other VoIP providers.

Network neutrality does NOT mean that a provider can’t “frame” pages (as do many providers — especially those like Juno which provide inexpensive or free service) or send them informative messages via their browser.

Let’s step back and take a dispassionate look at what Rogers is really doing here. They need to get a message to a customer. Like any experienced ISP, they know that there’s a good chance that e-mail won’t be read in a timely way, if at all. (We, as an ISP, find that our customers constantly change their addresses — often after revealing them online and exposing them to spammers — without any notice, and often let the mailboxes that we give them fill up, unread, until they exceed their quotas and no more can be received.) The Windows Message Service once worked to send users messages, but only ran on Windows and is now routinely blocked because it’s become an avenue for pop-up spam. Snail mail? Expensive and slow… and the whole point of the Internet is to do things faster and more efficiently than that. Give users an special program to display messages from the ISP? Users have too many things running in the background, cluttering their computers, already — so no one could blame them if they didn’t install it. (Also, many users won’t install an application for fear of viruses, and alternative operating systems likely would not run the software.) Display a different page than the user requested? Perhaps, but that certainly comes much closer to “hijacking” than what Rogers is doing. Display a message in the user’s browser window (where we know he or she is looking) along with the Web page, and let the user “dismiss” it as soon as it’s noticed? Excellent idea. A wonderful, simple, unobtrusive, and (IMHO) elegant solution to the problem.

Now comes Lauren Weinstein — known for drawing attention to himself by sensationalizing tempests in a teapot — who has never run an ISP but seems to like to dictate what they do. Lauren claims that the sky will fall if ISPs use this nearly ideal way of communicating with their customers.

Contrary to the claims of Mr. Weinstein’s “network neutrality squad” (who have expanded the definition of “network neutrality” to mean “ISPs not doing anything which we, as unappointed regulators, do not approve”), this means of communication does not violate copyrights. Why? First of all, the message from the ISP appears entirely above, and separate from, the content of the page in the browser window. It’s not much different that displaying it in a different pane (which, by the way, the browser might also be able to do — but this is better because it’s less obtrusive and unlikely to fail for the lack of Javascript or distort the page below). The display can’t be considered a derivative work, because no human is adding his own creative expression to someone else’s creation. A machine — which can’t create copyrighted works or derivative ones — is simply putting a message above the page in the same browser window.

It isn’t defacement, because the original page appears exactly as it was intended — just farther down in the window. And it isn’t “hijacking,” because the user is still getting the page he or she requested.

What’s more, there’s no way that it can be said to be “non-neutral.” The proxy which inserts the message into the window doesn’t know or care what content lies below. The screen capture in Weinstein’s blog showed Google, but it just as easily could have been Yahoo!, or Myspace, or Slashdot. For the same reason, it can’t be said to be an invasion of privacy, because the software isn’t looking at the content of the page above which it is inserting the message.

In short, to complain that this practice is somehow injurious to the author of the original page is akin to an author complaining that his book has been injured by being displayed in a shop window along with another book by someone he didn’t like. (Sorry, sir, but the merchant is allowed to do that.)

Nor is what Rogers is doing a violation of an ISP’s “common carrier” obligations (even if they were considered to be common carriers, which under US law, at any rate, they are not). Common carriers have been injecting notices into communications streams since time immemorial (“Please deposit 50 cents for the next 3 minutes”). And television stations have been superimposing images on program content at least since the early 1960s, when (I’m dating myself here) Sandy Becker’s “Max the burglar” dashed across the screen during kids’ cartoon shows and the first caller to report his presence won a prize. (The game was called “Catch Max.”) And in the US, Federal law — in particular, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — protects ISPs from liability for content they retransmit whether or not they are considered to be common carriers.

There are sure to be some folks — perhaps people who are frustrated with their ISPs for other reasons — who will take this as an opportunity to lash out at ISPs. But most customers, I think, will recognize this as a good and sensible way for a company to contact its customers. Our small ISP is looking into it. In fact, because the issue is being raised, we’re adding authorization to do it to our Terms of Service, so that users will be put on notice that they might receive a message through their browsers one day. I suppose it’s possible that a customer might dislike this mode of communication and go elsewhere, but I suspect that most of them will appreciate it. In the meantime, let’s just say “no” to regulation of the Internet.

Deekoo L. (user link) says:

Not YET a bad thing.

If all Rogers is doing is editing the HTML of whatever page you download when you run close to your bandwidth cap to become a frameset featuring their ‘you are low on bandwidth’ message, it’s a GOOD thing – I, as a customer, like to know when I’m about to do something that will incur extra costs. I am liable to drop providers that do something that costs me more money without warning me.

Does it involve technology with the potential to monitor and modify data being accessed? Yes. Using an Internet connection grants whoever controls the routers the physical ability to monitor what passes through them and change it if they wish. This can be used with or without the user’s consent. Burma and China do this to limit access to dissenting political views; Saudi Arabia and, I think, Australia do it to limit access to porn (China also officially disapproves of porn). The Roings ad-trojan does it to put its own ads into Google search results on infected machines; Kazaa modified packets to redirect all Amazon referer links so that they would receive the money instead of the original poster; the adblock plugin does it to let Mozilla users block advertisements they don’t wish to see. The US government requires schools and libraries receiving government funding to purchase censorship software to prevent children from being exposed to material found sexually objectionable – and the filtering software tends also to block websites that the manufacturers find politically or personally objectionable; and to the best of my knowledge the US government is still actively monitoring all traffic sent through AT&T facilities; Scientology does it to reduce their members’ exposure to political or religious dissent (Including one rather silly gaffe where the censorship software was configured to block ‘xxxx’, because the word they actually wanted to block was considered so dangerous that it could not be put in the censorware’s configuration files.). Netcafe proxies do it to make you log in first; some workplace and ISP proxies do it to reduce overall bandwidth costs; some malware and spam filters do it to disrupt worms and spam.

All of these uses are slightly intrusive. Some are appreciated by the users affected by them, others are not.

There is a fairly high danger that the product being used will be used for its intended purpose – while telling me when I’m about to use up my bandwidth is a good thing, telling me that you’d like to offer me a great deal on a variable-rate mortgage (so I can be foreclosed on just like everyone else they sold them to) is a BAD thing. Not quite as bad as hiding the existence of the Falun Gong from me or reading all my email, but bad. And bad enough that I would drop them – I hate ads.

(A technical aside: it’s not at all practical for a standard high-speed ISP connection to use a splash page a la what netcafes do – they keep track of physical network connection and disconnection. There aren’t very many users who keep the network cables unplugged and wireless cards off until they start surfacing, and often even that information is hidden from the ISP router by a customer-owned router/firewall/accesspoint.)

So – use this opportunity to tell Rogers that you won’t put up with ads being inserted, but make it clear that you can tell the difference between what they’re sending and an ad. And then go and direct all this outrage at the companies that decided that you didn’t NEED any privacy because big government feels safer when you don’t have any and the countries that want to keep their subjects from accessing criticism of their regimes.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...