June 03, 2008


By Lai Kok Fung, BuzzCity CEO

One of Singapore's leading mobile service providers, MobileOne (M1), has implemented a service that they claim helps mobile web pages load faster and improves a user's experience. But in reality, their “mobile web content transcoding engine” MobileSurf violates consumer and publisher rights and makes surfing the mobile internet more difficult for consumers.

M1 should disable MobileSurf immediately. BuzzCity has already conveyed this message in writing to M1, but so far the company has dismissed our appeal. More about that in a moment.

What MobileSurf does is insert the company's branded headers and footers onto mobile web pages that do not belong to it. The engine also tracks consumers' surfing patterns. All this is done without the permission of M1 users or the mobile sites visited. These practices infringe on the copyrighted content of web publishers (including BuzzCity), jack up prices for mobile surfers, violate consumer privacy and cause service disruptions.

What M1 is doing is not new. In the fixed line internet world, it's called “Browser Hijacking,” a practice where a company uses scripting tools or server-side programs to manipulate browser settings and displays seen by the end users.

Here's an image taken by one user of a mobile website before M1 started Browser Hijacking:

And here's an image taken afterwards:

Back in 2005, SpyWare called Browser Hijacking “a despicable trend.” Australian computer journalist Rose Vines writes: “Let's face it, anyone who is prepared to kidnap you in this fashion has little regard for your privacy.” Vines adds that hijackers are trying – over and over again – to drive users to their site in the hope of boosting business. She also notes that porn sites were the first to implement this tactic.

At BuzzCity, we strongly believe that what M1 is doing is wrong for the following reasons:

1. Copyright Infringement. M1 does not own the pages that it is modifying. End of story. Imagine for a moment that you are a media company like CNBC or BBC. Would you allow a mobile carrier to insert branded headers and footers into your carefully designed pages? It's bad enough when this happens on PC internet sites, but in the mobile world, where the screen size is already quite small, M1's ads can sometimes occupy more than a quarter of the viewing page.

2. Privacy. M1 is tracking the pages visited by users as well as the date that the site is visited and the time spent there. Hello Big Brother.

3. Data Costs. M1 is basically increasing its revenues and raising the consumers' costs without their consent. Consumer charges are based in part on data transfer and M1's banners add to the size of the data transmitted when consumers surf the mobile internet.

Since MobileSurf was launched in early April, we've written M1 to ask that the headers and footers be removed. At first we were told that the banners were only inserted on webpages during MobileSurf's launch phase. When we later pointed out that they were still in place, M1 replied: "we are of the view that there has been no infringement on your rights in any way." As for the banners, M1 says they help "customers to navigate and manage the websites they are surfing on their mobile phones." It adds that "the access links do not form any part of your website nor do they alter the contents of your website in any way."

But as soon as M1 implemented MobileSurf, it attracted complaints from consumers as well. One blogger writes “Call M1 hotline 1627 and tell them they don't have the rights!" Another blogger notes that a number of applications that he was accustomed to using – Google Maps, Opera Mini, Outlook Mobile Access and Twitter – stopped functioning. In response to a M1 claim that MobileSurf “provides a friendlier way to browse the Web on your mobile phone, making it easier to go online wherever you may be” this blogger replied “Friendlier way my ass.” After talking to M1's helpline a couple times, he determined that there is a workaround – turn off MobileSurf. For the benefit of other M1 users, he posted instructions on how to do it. Users of the chat forum Hardware Zone were similarly peeved.

The BuzzCity Ad Network meanwhile can track the number of page views by carrier. We note that M1's share of the market dropped from 21% to 13% after MobileSurf was introduced. And this is taking place against the backdrop of a huge increase in our reported advertising inventory based on over 2000 publisher sites.

If companies like M1 want to drive users to their mobile sites, the solution is simple. They should offer content consumers want. What they shouldn't do is hijack other pages.

M1, it's time to do the right thing. Turn off MobileSurf.