Feeds

Virgin hijacks empty pages

All your void are belong to us

Top three mobile application threats

Updated Virgin broadband has started serving up advertising, instead of empty pages, when the domain you were looking for turns out not to be there.

Users of Virgin's Broadband service have started seeing Virgin's "Advanced Network Error Search" instead of the traditional Server Not Found error when they enter a URL that doesn't exist. This provides an opportunity for Virgin to cram in some advertising, in a development that should worry anyone hoping that web browsers don't represent the final stage of internet evolution.

The trick isn't new: Comcast, Verizon and several other US ISPs already insert their own messages when users try to contact a non-existent server. But it's the first time we've seen it on this side of the pond, and while most users might not care if they get an error message or targeted advertising, it does upset the robots.

The process takes place as part of the Domain Name Service (DNS) lookup: in the usual course of things the user types "www.theregister.co.uk" and the DNS returns "212.100.234.54", but if the user types "www.nottheregister.co.uk" then the DNS returns an error and the user's browser passes on that information:

DNS Error

But the DNS can, instead, return the address of an advertising service branded help page which the browser displays as though it were a valid site:

Virgin DNS Error

Notice the cunningly-targeted, and sponsored, advertisements in this example.

The problem comes with software which wants to check if a domain is valid, or intends to process the returned page in some way and is prepared to deal with an error - with this kind of response no error is ever generated so the software has no way of telling if the domain was valid. Modern browsers, for example, offer to auto-complete pages you've visited before, if they were valid, but now the browser has no way of detecting if you were typing with two thumbs again.

Virgin has provided an FAQ which nicely overstates the problem with an Internet Explorer version 6 screen shot while claiming that the advertising links are there to help users find what they were looking for. The FAQ also contains details of how to opt out of the process.

This isn't a new thing, and once users get used to it the practice will probably spread to other ISPs who are equally desperate to find a revenue stream in these challenging times - it will make developing automatic applications more difficult, and we're not looking forward to our browsers helpfully offering to auto-complete every typo we've ever made. ®

Update: It's been pointed out that Virgin isn't alone in hijacking DNS errors in Europe, just the latest ISP to adopt this particular money-making scheme which is spreading with surprising speed.

Combat fraud and increase customer satisfaction

More from The Register

next story
Virgin Media so, so SORRY for turning spam fire-hose on its punters
Hundreds of emails flood inboxes thanks to gaffe
A black box for your SUITCASE: Now your lost luggage can phone home – quite literally
Breakfast in London, lunch in NYC, and your clothes in Peru
AT&T threatens to pull out of FCC wireless auctions over purchase limits
Company wants ability to buy more spectrum space in auction
Turnbull leaves Australia's broadband blackspots in the dark
New Statement of Expectations to NBN Co offers get-out clauses for blackspot builds
Facebook claims 100 MEEELLION active users in India
Who needs China when you've got the next billion in your sights?
Facebook splats in-app chat, whacks brats into crack yakety-yak app
Jibber-jabbering addicts turfed out just as Zuck warned
Google looks to LTE and Wi-Fi to help it lube YouTube tubes
Bandwidth hogger needs tube embiggenment if it's to succeed
prev story

Whitepapers

Top three mobile application threats
Learn about three of the top mobile application security threats facing businesses today and recommendations on how to mitigate the risk.
Combat fraud and increase customer satisfaction
Based on their experience using HP ArcSight Enterprise Security Manager for IT security operations, Finansbank moved to HP ArcSight ESM for fraud management.
The benefits of software based PBX
Why you should break free from your proprietary PBX and how to leverage your existing server hardware.
Five 3D headsets to be won!
We were so impressed by the Durovis Dive headset we’ve asked the company to give some away to Reg readers.
SANS - Survey on application security programs
In this whitepaper learn about the state of application security programs and practices of 488 surveyed respondents, and discover how mature and effective these programs are.