Friday, March 05, 2010

LiveJournal in spy tracking, affiliate cheating, ad scandal

LiveJournal was taken down by DDOS in 2006.Image via Wikipedia

Poor old LiveJournal. I fear the once popular blogging community is still fighting against the tide. The site is clearly desperate to raise some cash but the latest attempts look to be on the dark side and have, understandably, provoked a backlash.

LiveJournal were ambushing outbound links to about 150 e-commerce sites. In other words, if a LiveJournal blogger linked to one of these sites, that link was hijacked by LiveJournal and turned into an affiliate link.

The site that these links are being pushed through is and already it’s been added by thousands of people to the ad blocker plugins that the LiveJournal community are fond of. However, it was also possible to opt-out of the tracking.

This opt-out is obscure and unpublicised. LiveJournal didn’t tell anyone they’d add the link hijacking in the first place. Users had to find the rarely used admin console and use it to execute the command set opt_exclude_status 1.

LiveJournal seemed to have tried hard to keep this outbound link hijacking a secret. The links looked normal until they were clicked. At that point some obscure JavaScript hijacked the action. It also looked that the script stripped any of your own affiliate ID and replaced it with their own.

It’s against Amazon’s T&Cs to tamper with other affiliate links in this way.

Needless to say, once the scandal broke last night LiveJournal noticed. To their credit they were fast to act.

Kyle Cassidy, a blogger on the LJ Advisory Board (a non-paid role, I think, and an elected one) started to communicate.

LJ was indeed redirecting about 150 urls to advertisers, even for paid users. They are now aware how Not Good an Idea that was. They're pulling that code tonight.

It seems that LiveJournal have been good to their word. The code is gone.

The whole drama really highlights the challenges some social networks have around making money. There’s no easy way to turn UGC into cash. It’s often not where advertisers want to advertise either.

The lesson seems to be clear too – LiveJournal got it wrong by trying to hide the code. People also worried about the privacy implications of the third party tracker being used. The way forward? Do social networks need to use their own ad system – for trust, if nothing else? Perhaps so.

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