Belkin Cans 'Spamming' Wi-Fi Routers

By Ed Sutherland

November 26, 2003

Customers and IT workers alike raised hackles at what they saw as the SOHO wireless vendor's intrusive marketing.

When the parent of a home-schooled child recently took to a Usenet newsgroup questioning why his wireless home networking gear was behaving oddly, a privately-held California company suddenly found itself in the cross-hairs of computer users irate over unsolicited ads and IT workers concerned with Wi-Fi security.

At the heart of the growing firestorm of protests was Belkin's attempt at advertising its new Parental Control software to router owners. The software allows parents to determine what Web addresses their children can access. Belkin decided to include a 'feature' in the software controlling its 802.11g Wireless DSL/Cable Gateway Router that caused unwary Web surfers to be redirected to an ad for a free six-month trial subscription of the Parental Control service. Although Belkin made it easy to disable the feature during software installation, many new router owners overlooked the process and the legend of the first spamming router was born.

Belkin's decision will become "one of those watchful tales that end up in a ton of PowerPoint presentations about the wrong way to advertise online," says Gary Stein, analyst for Jupiter Research .

Although the 'call home' feature was first introduced in February, it wasn't until early November that the problem became public. That initial question left in the Usenet newsgroup grew to epic proportions as users left comments such as "I'm never going to buy another Belkin product!"

Other complaints were that such a feature could harm computer systems -- even make them vulnerable to unauthorized tampering.

"Sys-admins tend to be extremely sensitive to any unnecessary traffic on their networks," says Stein.

Belkin's response changed almost hourly. Eric Demming, a Belkin product manager, responded to the Usenet messages by admitting what they call a 'feature' could easily be mistaken as something more sinister.

"We did this not to be evil, we did this to make sure that any non-techy [sic] person would have ample opportunity to opt in or out" of the free trial offer of Belkin's Parental Control service, wrote Demming.

Demming also told the Usenet audience of IT managers and spam haters that he knew "this feature might be misunderstood and might PO some people. I know the manual could do a better job explaining it."

Belkin, in an attempt to stem the tide of consumer complaints, at first posted a testily-worded defense on its company Web site: "Belkin is aware of some recent postings that claim that Belkin wireless routers are spamming users during the setup process and periodically thereafter. It is not now, nor has it ever been, the policy of Belkin to intentionally spam our customers or anyone else."

That initial public message was quickly replaced on Nov. 10 with a calmer corporate mea culpa.

"We at Belkin apologize for the recent trouble our customers have experienced with the wireless router/browser redirect issue. We will be offering firmware fixed available for download early next week."

Of course, no controversy involving the Internet could be complete without a conspiracy theory. Soon after Demming's explanation of the router redirection troubles, his Usenet message vanished from Google Groups, the search engine's newsgroup archive. It is Google's policy to remove a message on the poster's request.

Stein believes the episode could be a deciding factor in future Wi-Fi buying decisions.

"The network device market is pretty tight. 'We don't spam' would be a pretty powerful differentiator."

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