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Digital ad gadfly dings AT&T hotspot for intrusive ad injections

The free airport hotspot provided by AT&T at Dulles International Airport has “sprouted ads. Lots of them, in places they didn’t belong,” says Jonathan Mayer, PhD candidate in computer science, law lecturer at Stanford and perennial privacy and digital ad gadfly, in a blog post Tuesday.

According to Mayer, AT&T appears to be using an ad injection platform from RaGaPa, a small startup.  The RaGaPa website says it “helps you to get the most out of your investments in WiFi and helps you to turn costs into profits.”

With RaGaPa’s innovative technology you can deliver your own advertising and messages via your WiFi network, directly displayed on every website that users visit, without the need of a portal or an app install. By this way you can create a permanent communication channel and learn about the browsing behavior and preferences of your visitors.

Mayer faults AT&T on several counts.

AT&T has an (understandable) incentive to seek consumer-side income from its free wifi service, but this model of advertising injection is particularly unsavory. Among other drawbacks: It exposes much of the user’s browsing activity to an undisclosed and untrusted business. It clutters the user’s web browsing experience. It tarnishes carefully crafted online brands and content, especially because the ads are not clearly marked as part of the hotspot service. And it introduces security and breakage risks, since website developers generally don’t plan for extra scripts and layout elements.

AT&T said the ads were part of a trial that has now ended. “Our industry is constantly looking to strike a balance between the experience and economics of free Wi-Fi. We trialed an advertising program for a limited time in two airports (Dulles and Reagan National) and the trial has ended. The trial was part of an ongoing effort to explore alternate ways to deliver a free Wi-Fi service that is safe, secure and fast,” the company said in a statement.