FTC Files Complaint Against Company Exploiting Microsoft Messenger to Display Pop Up Ads

November 6, 2003. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) filed a complaint [11 pages in PDF] in U.S. District Court (DMd) against D Squared Solutions LLC and others alleging unfair trade practices in violation of the Federal Trade Commission Act (FTCA) in connection with the exploitation of the Microsoft Windows Messenger Service to send to computers frequent and unwarranted pop up ads that offered for sale software that stops the ads. See also, FTC release.

The complaint, which was filed on October 30, alleges that "Since at least May 2003, defendants, utilizing a network administration feature of Microsoft Windows known as ``Messenger Service创 have caused a stream of repeated, unwanted ``pop up创 advertisements to pop up and appear on the computer screens of consumers throughout the United States, including consumers in this District. In numerous instances, defendants have caused a series of their pop ups (also known as ``Messenger Service spam创 and ``pop up spam创) to appear on computer screens, popping up at 10-minute to 30-miute intervals during a given computer session. In numerous instances, defendants have caused their repeated, unwanted Messenger Service spam to appear on a consumer's computer' screen for several weeks and/or several months on end. These pop up advertisements appear on consumers' computer screens even when the consumers are not using their Internet browsers (for instance, when consumers are using word processing software), so long as the consumers are logged onto the Internet."

The complaint further states that "Most of the pop up messages instruct consumers to visit one of the defendants' web sites where they can purchase software that will cause the pop ups to stop."

It also alleges that "The Messenger Service is designed to provide computer network administrators with the ability to provide instant information to network users, such as the need to log off of the network due to a system malfunction. Because of its intended purpose, Messenger Service pop up windows appear on a consumer's computer screen so long as the consumer is logged onto the network, no matter what application (e.g., word processing, spreadsheet, financial management) the consumer is using." (Parentheses in original.)

"In essence, defendants bombard an individual consumer with a stream of repeated, unwanted pop up spam in an attempt to induce the consumer to pay defendants to stop the bombardment", the FTC complaint alleges.

The FTC also alleges that "Consumers have suffered and continue to suffer injures from defendants' pop up spam including but not limited to, losing data, losing work productivity, having their computer screens freeze suffering an increasing level of frustration, annoyance, and harassment at receiving the pop ups, and expending money to purchase pop up-blocking or ``firewall创 software."

The complaint alleges two violations of Section 5(a) of the FTCA, which is codified at 15 U.S.C. 45(a).

First, the FTC alleges that "defendants interfere with consumers' use of their computers by causing a stream of multiple, unwanted Windows Messenger Service pop ups to appear on consumers' computer screens even when consumers are not using their Internet browsers."

Second, the FTC alleges coercion. It alleges that "by causing a stream of multiple, unwanted Windows Messenger Service pop ups to appear on consumers' computer screens , advertising software that will stop the delivery of the pop ups, defendants attempt to coerce consumers into purchasing or licensing their software."

The FTC seeks preliminary and permanent injunctive relief, as well as rescission of contracts, restitution, refunds, and disgorgement of profits.

The District Court issued a Temporary Restraining Order and Order to Show Cause [12 pages in PDF] on October 30 in which it ordered that the defendants "are temporarily restrained and enjoined from directly or indirectly causing a Windows Messenger Service message, which advertises, promotes, markets, offers for sale or license, or sells or licenses any product or service, to appear on a computer user's computer screen."

The defendants are also restraining from selling or licensing any product that exploits Messenger Service.

The District Court also set a hearing for 9:30 AM on November 10, 2003. It will be held at the Garmatz Federal Courthouse, 101 W. Lombard Street, Baltimore.

The Windows Messenger is only present in Windows 2000, Windows XP and related and subsequent operating systems.

Disbabling Windows Messenger, and hence, stopping the pop ups can be accomplished quickly and easily as follows: Start - Control Panel - Administrative Tools - Services - scroll down to Messenger and disable it.

A properly configured firewall can prevent the pop ups also. The FTC has a web page with more detailed instructions.