Nothing is free, even if it seems to be at first glance. Additional advertising is being shown to users who connect to the web on AT&T’s free Wi-Fi hotspots, according to a report from Web Policy. This is definitely a gray area for violating the terms of service that users agree to when they login and connect, and it will be interesting to see what happens as more people take notice of this practice.
Basically, what’s happening is that users are seeing ads in places where they shouldn’t. In the test by Web Policy, Stanford University’s website was used, and ads that required the user to wait and ads for AT&T itself were appearing, and they most certainly didn’t belong there. They even found ads like these appearing on Federal Government websites.
The team took a look at the code and they were able to see that these ads were coming from a company called RaGaPa, a startup with the pitch to “MONETIZE YOUR NETWORK”.
These ads only show up on websites that use HTTP, as HTTPS is secure from end-to-end. Three code elements are added to the site–one main ad, a backup ad, and scripts that control the loading and display of said ads.
Attempts by other companies to monetize a network through ads have been quickly shut down, generally because of the company backing off due to backlash. It’s a weird area that may violate the FCC’s net neutrality rules, FTC’s unfairness and deception authorities, wiretapping statute, and others. Users are having at least a portion of their traffic routed through a third-party that the user has not authorized.
AT&T does have a section in its user agreement that states that it “may also enable certain technologies intended to improve your experience…” and it could be argued that these ads fall under that clause, but it seems like it would be difficult to convince anyone that intrusive ads are improving anything besides AT&T’s bottom line.