A security researcher on Friday blasted adware maker Zango for targeting popular social networking site MySpace as a distribution channel, a charge the company had previously denied.
Chris Boyd, the director of malware research for security vendor FaceTime, provided TechWeb with a copy of an e-mail sent by a Zango representative to a potential affiliate of the Bellevue, Wash. firm. The email outlined how to get MySpace users to download Zango's adware.
"Zango is fairly new with myspace sites and it took me some time to see what works and what doesn't," the email read. "I think I figured it out now by looking at small sites who are making incredible money with Zango right now."
The email was dated June 8, over a month after Zango spokesmen told TechWeb that the company -- formerly known as 180solutions -- was not deliberately using MySpace.
"Are we targeting MySpace?" said Zango spokesman Steve Stratz earlier this month. "No." At that time, Stratz claimed that Zango adware found on MySpace was there by mistake, placed on the site by an overzealous company developer.
"This is the smoking gun," said Boyd Friday. "It conclusively proves that they were indeed targeting MySpace."
The email TechWeb reviewed was sent to someone who had signed up with the company's ZangoCash program, but who had never set up a site to distribute the adware. In the message, the representative -- identified as "Josh" -- offered advice on how to push Zango adware on MySpace.
"MOVING GIFS. This really gets people's attention and vistors [sic] love this sh**," one tip reads. Another: "Highlight the html code and embed one of the videos. This will make it automatically pop when the visitor reaches that page. This will lead to a lot more thinking to themselves: 'hmm, this looks like a cool video. I'll watch this. CLICK.'"
Before users can view Zango-provided video, they must install Zango's adware software.
The representative also recommended paying kickbacks to friends with popular MySpace profiles. "More profitably, go to a bunch of your friends who have popular profiles and pay them (it's up to you so much. One of my partners said 5$...maybe offer to split the money with them?) to put a zango video into their profile through your site. This will give you hundreds of extra installs a day," the email reads. "This probably works even better than having them on your actual site."
MySpace bans advertising on members' profiles and prohibits "accepting payment or anything of value from a third person in exchange for your performing any commercial activity on or through MySpace."
"This email highlights the inconsistencies and contradictions of various Zango representatives," said Boyd. "They can't be surprised then when they're dragged out and beaten up on complaints about how they distribute their adware."
In an emailed response to TechWeb questions, Zango spokesman Corey Magnus acknowledged that "as the email clearly indicates, we had at one point looked into opportunities" on MySpace. But Magnus again said it was Zango's policy not to target the social site.
"This practice was immediately halted last month upon learning of MySpace's 'Non-commercial user by members' term of use shortly thereafter," Magnus said. "As of a result of this finding, there are no longer MySpace users/profiles commercially benefiting through installations of our software."
That may be true in the letter of the law, but not the spirit, countered Boyd, who early last week detailed how a partner continues to push Zango installs on MySpace. "You'd naturally assume that this affiliate's account has been terminated," Boyd said. "But he's still installing Zango software.
"This proves that Zango's system doesn't work. One hand says we don't know anything about it, while the other sends out emails saying how to target MySpace," said Boyd.
Zango acknowledged the site Boyd found is run by an affiliate, but denied that that meant it was in violation of MySpace's terms. "We do have partners that provide tools to MySpace users but sites like this are individual sites not directly tied to MySpace. In addition, our content is often shared virally and we don't discourage that."
"In other words, they're just not going to take responsibility," said Boyd in reaction.
Boyd's claims weren't the only bad news for Zango. On Thursday, Warner Bros. Studios said that it was thinking about terminating its business arrangement with Zango. A Warner Bros. website targeting kids offers free game downloads bundled with Zango Search Assistant, Zango's most commonly-distributed adware.
"Our agreement with Zango is contingent upon Zango's ability to satisfy a rigorous set of adware/trackware integrity requirements," Warner Bros. spokesman Scott Rowe said. "After initial concerns were recently raised, we requested that Zango meet an even higher standard by earning certification from TRUSTe. We take this issue very seriously and we have maintained all along that if Zango does not meet any one of these criteria we will terminate the deal."
Although Rowe wouldn't confirm that the arrangement was dead -- "I'm still checking with the lawyers," he said Friday -- Zango's Magnus did.
"As of today, we are no longer working with Warner Bros.," he said.
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