Feeds

Virgin hijacks empty pages

All your void are belong to us

5 things you didn’t know about cloud backup

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.

Secure remote control for conventional and virtual desktops

More from The Register

next story
6 Obvious Reasons Why Facebook Will Ban This Article (Thank God)
Clampdown on clickbait ... and El Reg is OK with this
So, Apple won't sell cheap kit? Prepare the iOS garden wall WRECKING BALL
It can throw the low cost race if it looks to the cloud
EE fails to apologise for HUGE T-Mobile outage that hit Brits on Friday
Customer: 'Please change your name to occasionally somewhere'
Time Warner Cable customers SQUEAL as US network goes offline
A rude awakening: North Americans greeted with outage drama
We need less U.S. in our WWW – Euro digital chief Steelie Neelie
EC moves to shift status quo at Internet Governance Forum
EE plonks 4G in UK Prime Minister's backyard
OK, his constituency. Brace yourself for EXTRA #selfies
prev story

Whitepapers

Endpoint data privacy in the cloud is easier than you think
Innovations in encryption and storage resolve issues of data privacy and key requirements for companies to look for in a solution.
Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Advanced data protection for your virtualized environments
Find a natural fit for optimizing protection for the often resource-constrained data protection process found in virtual environments.
Boost IT visibility and business value
How building a great service catalog relieves pressure points and demonstrates the value of IT service management.
Next gen security for virtualised datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.