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Dubious advertisers lurk in online networks for data mining

Karthik Subramanian

Expose on game developer gives addicts reasons to be wary


Farmville featured ‘lead ads’ promising game currency in exchange for sign-ups

The catch: users’ personal data was being collected by “lead” networks


Chennai: In the first week of the month, independent technology blogger Micheal Arrington of Techcrunch.com blew the lid off the dubious CPA (cost-per-action) advertisements that were being run by game developer Zynga via games such as Farmville and Mafia Wars on social networking sites.

Mr. Arrington followed it up with an even more damning expose, a video featuring Zynga CEO Mark Pingus, shot earlier this year at a start-up convention, in which he candidly admits that he “did every horrible thing in the book to get the revenues.” Whether this admission is explicit about his including dubious ad campaigns in the games or whether he was exploited by third-party ad networks has become a matter of much discussion online.

Farmville is one of the social networking games that have had a considerable fan following on the Facebook network: 61 million users, according to a count earlier this year. It had been featuring the dubious ‘lead ads’ that promised users game currency in exchange for simple sign-ups: the catch was that the users’ personal data was being mined for by dubious “lead” networks.

Cost-per-action advertising has been gaining ground over the past few years over display and pay-per-click advertising, as it is more lucrative if the conversion rate is high. After Techcrunch’s post went viral, Mr. Pingus, through his official blog (markpingus.typepad.com), fixed the blame on ad middlemen: “We need to be more aggressive and have revised our service level agreements with these providers requiring them to filter and police offers prior to posting on their networks.”

He pointed out that one of the worst offenders of the kind, Tattoo Media, had been struck down by the company’s policies even before the expose.

But the Zynga affair has put a twist on the way the entire thing was manipulated. Farmville has become an addictive game for millions and game currency itself has become a lure, hard not to bite for many. The fallout of the affair makes for interesting reading. Already, a Sacramento-based law firm is investigating complaints of unauthorised charges that were imposed on social network users who were misled into accepting offers of dubious quality. Facebook, MySpace and Zynga are among the companies being investigated.

But since the Facebook ecosystem itself transcends geographical barriers, the question that begs for an answer here is: if there are victims from India, where can they go for justice?

N. Vijayashankar, who has worked with cyber crime cells in Chennai and Bangalore, says it is possible, at least on paper, for aggrieved parties to file complaints under sections of the Indian Penal Code and the amended IT Act and bring to court all parties: the social network, the game developer and also the advertiser. But, he says, in such cases the person has probably lost not more than a few dollars and it will be ideal if an NGO takes up the cause. “In the U.S., they have class action ... something similar to our public interest litigation. Maybe that is the only solution.” With social networks gaining a critical mass in India as in other countries, it is possible that many such frauds are just blips that go unnoticed. It is most likely that the full extent of the fraud will never get exposed despite the teeming millions that stay glued to such games.

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