Comcast redirects bad URLs to pages with advertising

DNS redirects could be a fresh new source of revenue for ISPs, but many users abhor it

Comcast subscribers will now be directed to a page with advertising if they try to reach a Web site that doesn't exist, a practice that doesn't sit well with some users.

Most of the time when users type an incorrect domain name for a Web site, the browser will display a warning saying the site can't be found. Comcast now directs users to a page that shows Yahoo search results, including paid sponsored links, in addition to suggesting the correct spelling of the page the user may have been looking for.

Comcast calls the program "Domain Helper" and began trialing it in several markets last month. It has now been rolled out to all Comcast subscribers.

Some users, however, resent being redirected and sarcastically term it "DNS (Domain Name System) hijacking," a nefarious hacker technique that redirects users to Web sites they didn't intend to go to.

Comcast contends the program results in a better user experience. "With the Domain Helper service we are testing now, we will instead help direct your Web browser to an easy-to-use page with suggestions and links to get you back on track," the company wrote on its blog last month.

Comcast will let users opt out of the program, but they must visit a special page and request it.

ISPs are trying to find revenue streams other than simply providing Internet access to subscribers for a monthly fee. Some have investigated behavioral advertising systems, which monitor a person's Web surfing in order to deliver targeted ads. Those systems have largely failed to take hold due to privacy concerns.

It wasn't clear from information published by Comcast if it has a revenue-sharing agreement with Yahoo for money generated when users decide to click on a sponsored advertisement.

Other companies also do redirects in order to generate revenue. For example, a company called OpenDNS provides a free DNS lookup service that translates domain names into IP (Internet Protocol) addresses so Web sites can be displayed in a browser.

OpenDNS says its system is faster than using the DNS servers run by ISPs and provides better protection against phishing attacks and other features such as Web content filtering. If a user types in an address that doesn't exist, users will get organic search results as well as sponsored links.

Users have to manually modify their network settings in order to use OpenDNS, so they've essentially give their implied consent to view advertisements. Comcast's opt-out policy means that people are automatically enrolled in the program and have to undertake additional steps to not use it.

That's what rankles some users the most. More than 100 comments have been posted to Comcast's blog, many of which decried the practice.

"So not only are you late to the game on this shady revenue scheme, but you've apparently ignored the near-universal hatred of these sorts of redirect techniques," wrote one user named Jake. "Bad move."

Another user, Alereon, wrote: "I've long been an outspoken supporter of Comcast. DNS redirect services like this break the basic functionality of the Internet by preventing DNS queries from failing and constitute a serious breach of the trust your subscribers have placed in you."

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Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.