ISPs Hijacking Browser Functions, Continue Proud Tradition Of Value-Free Added Services
from the added-value-for-us-but-not-for-you dept
ISPs over the last few years have quickly rushed to embrace DNS redirection advertising. Instead of users being directed to a traditional page not found message (or Google in some browsers) should they enter a nonexistent or mistyped URL, they’re redirected to an ISP-run search portal laden with advertisements. The concept creates a revenue stream out of your clumsy typing, giving ISPs an extra few bucks per month, per user (of course on top of whatever they make supposedly not selling your clickstream data). While many users don’t like the practice, most ISPs provide some kind of opt-out mechanism (though they often don’t work well), and users can often choose alternative DNS servers. Slashdot directs our attention to the fact that users continue to be surprised when they find out their ISP is hijacking user location bar results:
"Today I noticed that this great feature of Firefox (combined with Google of course) has stopped working, and has instead been replaced with an add-laden (sic) search result from another website. I’ve confirmed that my keyword.URL setting is still pointed at Google, so this must be happening at the traffic level, I would imagine either by use of a web proxy or something to do with DNS lookup, which makes me wonder if this new ‘feature’ my ISP (Netvigator by PCCW in Hong Kong) has introduced is also affecting my privacy?"
Here in the States one ISP (Windstream Communications) was recently busted for taking this concept one step further, going so far as to actually hijack Firefox Google search toolbar results. Windstream quickly backed away from the practice once users started to complain, insisting it was a mistake. However, the ISP wouldn’t offer technical specifics about what technology they were using that created this "bug," and employees were told not to elaborate. To be clear, in Windstream’s case this went well beyond DNS redirection, worked no matter what DNS servers were being used, and involved manipulating actual traffic streams using a new flavor of deep packet inspection. Whether this new layer 7/DPI is being used for copyright enforcement, surveillance, data mining or search result hijacks isn’t clear — but whatever it’s being used for, it’s being implemented with absolutely no transparency to the end user.
It seems unlikely that any U.S. ISP would take things further by hijacking toolbar results, given ISPs are busily trying to argue to regulators that network neutrality rules aren’t necessary. Still, as deep packet inspection technology gets more sophisticated, precisely how ISPs are meddling with your traffic is something to keep a close eye on. ISPs already have a bad habit of offering value added services that fail to provide any value to consumers, and DNS redirection ads are only the latest example. ISPs were in such a hurry to grab this additional revenue, they failed to bother to make sure opt-out mechanisms for these "services" even worked, much less consider adding any kind of enhanced DNS functionality (as seen by companies like OpenDNS) that would make these services worth something to the end user. While DPI itself isn’t bad, it holds a lot of potential for abuse among ISPs eager to make an extra buck at any cost.