When Richard Greenwood of San Diego-based NewTech Advisors downloaded a fun new file-sharing program from San Francisco-based
Yellow hyperlinks began appearing on the Web pages he surfed. Even on his own company's Web site was an Internet link to Business.com -- a link he never set up.
In search of answers, he went to the Web site of Internet security firm Symantec. Again, he found a perplexing hyperlink, highlighted in yellow on his computer screen: a link to Symantec rival, McAfee.
After sharing his confusion with fellow local techies, he learned he had inadvertently downloaded a new Web advertising tool. EZula's technology is called "TOPtext," while Microsoft has a version called "Smart Tags" that it recently opted to pull from its future shipments of Windows XP after receiving negative "external feedback."
Known as contextual advertising, keywords within a Web page can redirect a computer user to a competitor's Web site. For instance, the words "home equity" on La Jolla Bank's Web site can route online users to Wells Fargo's home equity Web page.
Greenwood, who considers himself fairly tech-savvy, says he was duped and suspects thousands of other San Diegans have been, too.
"I don't even think most Web masters are aware of this," Greenwood said. "You have to have a number of things line up for this to hit you in the face."
Greenwood and his chief technical adviser, Robert La Quey, have set about to educate companies about this technology. They say this technology pushes the legal limits of copyright infringement, anti-competitiveness and perhaps even privacy.
"The implications are really, really scary for Internet commerce," La Quey said. "The back door to all of these browsers is wide open."
Greenwood and La Quey say the tertiary problem -- anti-competitiveness -- is nothing compared to the possibilities. Programs could link online users to more unsavory Web sites, like pornography. And with access to roam around in a user's Web browser, unscrupulous software providers could have access to bank records, social security numbers, even Web shopping habits, they say. Even keystrokes could be recorded.
"This is really the tip of the iceberg as more and more companies jump on this bandwagon," Greenwood said.
Greenwood and La Quey are quick to point out that many San Diego Web sites are vulnerable to these hyperlinks. The pair have found involuntary hyperlinks on Web sites for Brobeck, Gray Cary, San Diego County Credit Union, and even the Daily Transcript.
Their educational campaign, of course, is not entirely altruistic. They hope by learning about the potential problem, which they explain on their Web site www.poachware.com, companies will come to them for software consulting services. In a recent letter to California Bank and Trust, for example, the pair offered their services for a consultation fee of $6,000.
Company officials contacted Monday say they ignored NewTech Advisors' warning because they thought it was simply a sales pitch.
EZula officials on Monday say they have been unfairly targeted by a growing contingent of programmers and Web site developers, who spread their distaste for Smart Tags in Internet chat rooms such as that at Trabuco Canyon, Calif.-based www.scumware.com.
EZula spokeswoman Michele McGarry said TOPtext is a client-side technology, which resides only on the machines of those who download it. This, she says, negates the copyright infringement issues.
TOPtext is bundled with other software to provide a revenue-stream for free software downloads, she said.
"The interesting thing here is the user always has a choice to have it in their machine," McGarry said. "Our product doesn't make any changes to the computer's content."
EZula is careful not to make highlights within secured areas, she said, and pornography is not tolerated.
TOPtext, sold as ContextPro, has attracted about 1 million users and 30 advertisers since its launch in April of this year, McGarry said.
Naturally, there are ways around the technology. Online users can simply delete the program from their computers. Web masters can code their sites differently, perhaps formatting their text as graphics.
Still, Greenwood says it's a problem Web designers shouldn't have to battle.
"The bottom line is, the Web sites of these companies have basically been polluted," he said. "I don't know what answer is."