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The Pulpit
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Weekly Column

Earthlink Wants Total Access (to Your PC): Why Earthlink's Pop-Up Blocker is Very, Very Bad. Also, the SBC Frames Patents Go Down the Drain

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

Everybody hates pop-ups — you know, those extra ads that unexpectedly appear in new windows on top of or behind the window where you are surfing on almost every site except for PBS. Well maybe not EVERYBODY hates them. In a Jupiter-MediaMetrix survey last year, only 41 percent of respondents were against pop-ups, though if they had flipped the survey around and asked how many respondents LIKED pop-ups, my guess is the number would have been near zero. And even 41 percent is too many consumers to annoy at one sitting. So pop-ups are bad, which means that getting rid of them is a logical marketing scheme. That's the way it is, certainly, at AOL and Earthlink, the #1 and #3 U.S. Internet Service Providers ranked by number of subscribers. Why, then, are lots of Earthlink users annoyed with that company's anti-pop-up technology? Because it is insidious, intrusive, and manipulative. In short, Earthlink's war against pop-ups is for many users worse than the problem it purports to solve.

Earthlink's pop-up blocker for Windows computers is, in essence, a trojan — innocent appearing code that carries with some hidden pathogen. Earthlink's Pop-up Blocker may stop any pop-ups from, but it generates its own pop-up ads for Earthlink, itself. But it gets worse. What most people have installed is a beta copy of Pop-up Blocker. Now Earthlink members with Windows computers are being told that the beta has expired and they should download the permanent version.

Don't do it.

The so-called "permanent version" is a 14 megabyte suite of applications called Total Access 2003 that replaces your FTP client, your e-mail client, your PPPoE application, your browser preferences, your search engines, and more. It"takes over your computer" on boot-up, according to Earthlink, providing atool bar and other unwanted, undocumented features.

Read Earthink's FAQ on Total Access 2003 (the link can be found under the Links of the Week button on this page which, in this case seems somehow an inappropriate name). Total Access 2003 trashes your e-mail, can't import favorites into the new browser, and it has automatic updates, which means Earthlink can load anything else it likes onto your system at any time. And it can't be uninstalled.

No Earthlink software has ever had an uninstall, so why should this? Ask Earthlink tech support how to uninstall the Pop-up Blocker, and they'll tell you to install Total Access 2003, which is even worse. You can supposedly turn it off, but the evil pop-ups come back every few minutes anyway.

Is there any reason to think that Earthlink is not collecting and sending back information on their customers? Their privacy policy says they can. With automatic updates they can use this version of Total Access 2003 to install ANYTHING THEY WANT on your computer.

This is just plain bad. If you are an Earthlink customer like me (I use it from the road), then you should tell Earthlink and everyone else how you feel about what they are doing. And if you are an Earthlink customer with real technical skills, please put them to use figuring out a good way to get rid of this application. Thanks in advance for the help.

But what about those darned pop-ups? Well, there are browsers that can defeat pop-ups for customers of any ISP (Mozilla and Opera come to mind) and there are utilities (like Zone Alarm and Net Nanny) that can add pop-up killers to browsers that don't have that capability. More are listed under Links of the Week. You don't have to switch ISPs to get rid of pop-up ads.

I wish I didn't have to write so many negative columns. I am constantly looking for good news, really. And it is good news, I suppose, that last week's column about all the prior art might invalidate the SBC frames patents. One very large law firm that represents several companies who were approached by SBC for licenses gleefully grabbed that column and ran with it. Thanks to you readers, I am sure that justice will be done.

But just in case last week's column isn't enough, here is one last bit of prior art from Chris Werner, a reader from Portugal, which appears to not have a PBS affiliate station:

"In my house," writes Chris, "I have a device whose prototype was first invented in 1596 by Sir John Harington, godson to Queen Elizabeth I. This device has a button that is fixed permanently in place above a porcelain bowl. Each time I press the button I am presented with new and novel content in the bowl. Specifically, this content is a swirling torrent of fresh water that I have never seen before. (When I was a kid it was a handle connected to a chain, instead of a button, but the principle was the same). The first patent for this device was probably that of Samuel Prosser in 1777. Many other patents have been granted for variations, including those by the near-mythical Thomas Crapper. Does this count as prior art?"

Now I am not an expert, Chris, but that never stopped me before. It seems to me that the SBC patents refer to information technology, not plumbing. But what you describe might qualify as prior art if there was information — a signal or picture of some kind — encoded in the water. If you think that someone is sending you messages through your toilet, well, then we might have something. I'd go so far as to say we would DEFINITELY have something. Fortunately, Chris, there are people who can help you with this problem.

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