One of the best things about Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox is the amount of customisation options and the extensions available for both browsers – it’s something you don’t find in Internet Explorer (still the best browser to download other browsers). Along with that, both browsers also have some very neat and free ways to combat unwanted adverts, something that a lot of people complain about and may find jarring. Well, merely installing Adblock Plus isn’t going to be enough anymore – you need to keep a sharp eye on who owns the extensions that you’re using!
Two Google Chrome extensions – Tweet this Page and Add to Feedly – have recently been removed from the Google Drive store because they were both bought up, around the same time, by Adware companies looking to find better hooks into a browser than mere spam adverts. Both extensions were updated to not only remain functional, but to hijack links to serve spam advertising to users despite the fact that they had Adblock Plus installed.
Both extensions were taken down by Google for violating their terms of service and also serving up advertising not qualified by Google (because, you know, they sell adverts as well). None of the users were ever alerted to the change of ownership or the fact that the apps were updated. To date, Google still doesn’t require developers to create changelogs for their updates to allow users to see if the latest version is something they’d want to keep on their system.
Once the game was up, users began to flag the two applications with one-star scores and flagged the apps as spam sources. Tweet this Page and Add to Feedly both had around 100,000 active users, so their scores both nosedived pretty quickly.
The developer of Add to Feedly, Amit Agarwal, admitted that he sold his extension to an unknown buyer whose name returned no results on Google.
“It was a 4-figure offer for something that had taken an hour to create and I agreed to the deal. I had no clue about the buyer and was also curious to know – why would anyone pay this kind of money for such a simple Chrome extension?“ explained Agarwal in a blog post on his website.
“The extension was sold, they sent the money via PayPal and I transferred the ownership of the extension to a particular Google Account. It was a smooth transition.”
The adverts for Add to Feedly were link-jackers, where links in a webpage were changes to referral adverts for partners of the owners of Add to Feedly. The extension didn’t add in malware or viruses, but the fact that it used referral links to generate advertising revenue is most certainly a morally grey area. Users of the extensions can opt-out of the advertising through an option in the extension’s settings page and by blocking a few domains through your hosts file.
Its important to note that not only does Firefox always alert you to app updates, most of them also are accompanied with a changelog and a version number to help you keep track of them. There’s no inherent risk in using one browser over the other, but keep an eye out in the future – Adware companies buying up smaller apps to generate revenue may become a trend in 2014.