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March 4th, 2010
11:32 am
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Signal boost: LJ is changing your outbound links
Livejournal is secretly, and deliberately, changing certain outbound links that you post.

If you have affiliate links set up at places like Amazon, Livejournal is stealing money from you.

Even if you don't, this is a serious privacy issue, and they are breaking your links. For example, www.crittersbythebay.com goes to the front page of eBay when you click the link, unless you've opted out or blocked the Javascript file they're using to make the change.

If this were something they had announced, and they had offered clear opt-out instructions (instead of some users blindly stumbling across the setting and sharing it), it would be one thing. But sneaking this under the radar is a breach of trust to their user base, and sadly just the latest in a string of corporate missteps. (Edited to add: "Not that I do any kind of revenue generation, but I can't tolerate a system that changes my content without my knowledge or consent." -dagoski)

Some of my friends (including paid/permanent users) are leaving for Dreamwidth over this, and I don't blame them. I'll be setting up an account there myself*, but I'm going to wait for LJ's response to this issue before making my final decision on migration.

Please take a moment to help get some answers here:
  • If our friend circles don't have significant overlap, post something about this in your journal or in a community you belong to. This affects everyone using the service.
  • Ask Livejournal what the hell is going on. They can ignore silent outrage. They can't afford to ignore noisy outrage. Possible venues:
    • Add a comment to the support request open for this. (There may be others, or you might want to open a new request. I wouldn't personally do so. Spamming support requests clutters up the volunteer-driven system, and forces a fragmented response on their part.)
    • Add a comment to their latest post in news -- which at the time of this writing is this one -- asking for details and linking to one of the source pages. Or on one of their official communities: lj_releases, lj_maintenance, suggestions, etc.
    • Click on "Feedback" on their Contact Us page and leave a note.

Direct links for use in your posts:
http://caffeinepuppy.livejournal.com/214632.html - Original explanation
http://shatterstripes.livejournal.com/1065670.html - Technical explanation
http://shatterstripes.livejournal.com/1065749.html - Confirming the changing of affiliate links

EDITED TO ADD: The affiliate tampering is also against most of the affected services' TOS, and alerting those third-party websites to LJ's violation is another effective and immediate action that can be taken to remedy this.

ETA x2: I am now baxil on Dreamwidth; please friend me if you have an account there. I am not leaving LJ yet; I will let people know before I make any final decision, and for now I'm simply colocating.

ETA x3: " we have just begun the process of pulling this script", they say in comments to the latest news post. Developing ...

ETA x4 (2010/03/04 4:30 pm): The LJ team confirms they are in the process of removing the script, according to comments on that post. The script "wasn't supposed to override anyone's affiliate links" [*], but the whole story has not yet been told. I await further word.

--
* Any volunteers to provide me with an invite code? Invite code received, thank you!

Current Location: ~spiral
Current Mood: infuriatedinfuriated
Current Music: "No Excuses," Alice in Chains
Tags: ,

(40 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments
 
[User Picture]
From:kistaro
Date:March 4th, 2010 07:39 pm (UTC)
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LiveJournal can ignore quiet outrage. LiveJournal can ignore noisy outrage. They can't ignore Amazon telling them to go blow a goat because they're in flagrant violation of the terms of the Associate Program.

I pointed this out to Amazon. Any volunteers to go for the other sites affected by affiliate fraud?

As I posted in Peggy's journal, it's very clearly laid out what they can't do but are. So from what I sent to Amazon:

This script is undisclosed, LiveJournal does not declare their association with outboundlink.net or their affiliate program, Support questions about the matter have gone unanswered, LiveJournal is directly (and poorly) tampering with affiliate links by other users, and the page is processed through a redirect. Collectively, this violates sections 5, 9, 15, possibly 19 (the automatic system cannot control what links are rewritten and is poor at detecting correct links), 20, arguably but probably not 21, 23 (all links are processed as pop-ups), 25, 26, and arguably 27.

If you'd like to get your own opinion on what they've violated, see https://affiliate-program.amazon.com/gp/associates/help/operating/participation for the document I was referring to. Their failure to disclose their use of the Associate system isn't covered by the Participation Agreement, but it violates the Operating Agreement- https://affiliate-program.amazon.com/gp/associates/agreement .
[User Picture]
From:goldkin
Date:March 4th, 2010 08:39 pm (UTC)
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I'm not sure I entirely agree with regards to noisy outrage, especially with a change that affects all users. I need only cite Facebook's inclusion of Beacon for a case where the public backlash and privacy implications killed this behavior dead.

That being said, I fully support informing all affiliates of this behavior, and assume this has already happened for most on the list. The backlash from sponsors and flagrant link abuse bordering on clickfraud should be enough to reverse this decision.


(Note that I assume you (Kistaro) already know what I linked. I added those for the benefit of other readers. :) )
(Deleted comment)
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From:goldkin
Date:March 4th, 2010 09:21 pm (UTC)
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I'll admit that analogy isn't the best way to make this argument. That said, I can't see the change helping them in any public way, and ultimately see the bad PR costing them more than the affiliate information and money they're hoping to collect.

But then, I have a bad habit of thinking companies act rationally. So, you're probably correct.
[User Picture]
From:aprivatefox
Date:March 4th, 2010 10:36 pm (UTC)
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LJ is acting rationally - from the perspective of the largest social networking site in Russia, which incidentally has a large cost-center of an English-speaking site along for the ride, that costs them a lot and delivers little.

They don't have a business reason to care about their English-speaking users' happiness in any meaningful way, and that makes the situation bad.
[User Picture]
From:goldkin
Date:March 4th, 2010 11:08 pm (UTC)
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Perhaps this is a naive question, but assuming this is a global change, wouldn't Russian journals also be affected?
[User Picture]
From:aprivatefox
Date:March 4th, 2010 11:17 pm (UTC)
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Possibly, but I'm mostly seeing US e-commerce sites on that list. I don't know to what extent e-commerce and affiliate programs are a Big Deal in the Russian markets, honestly, but I think this move is far more likely to blow up on the US market than the Russian.
(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]
From:baxil
Date:March 4th, 2010 09:22 pm (UTC)
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I don't know, from reading the wikipedia age on the Beacon kerfluffle, it seems like FB was acting with LJ-like levels of cluelessness.

But, yes, this is just one more in a string of decisions that makes it increasingly obvious LJ does not care to treat their users like actual customers. Strikethrough was bad enough -- but affiliate theft and link breaking is a whole extra level of scummy above and beyond content disputes and advertising issues.
[User Picture]
From:kistaro
Date:March 4th, 2010 09:50 pm (UTC)
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I think the difference is that while Facebook has been holding steady, LiveJournal has been getting steadily worse over time since the 6A deal happened.
[User Picture]
From:baxil
Date:March 4th, 2010 09:08 pm (UTC)
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> I pointed this out to Amazon. Any volunteers to go for the other sites affected by affiliate fraud?

I do not have any affiliate memberships affected by this, but I wholeheartedly endorse this course of action.
[User Picture]
From:goldkin
Date:March 4th, 2010 09:23 pm (UTC)
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By the way, has anyone sent this to Slashdot?
[User Picture]
From:baxil
Date:March 4th, 2010 09:41 pm (UTC)
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Excellent idea! I'll send in a submission now, but multiple notices probably won't hurt.
[User Picture]
From:baxil
Date:March 4th, 2010 10:19 pm (UTC)
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http://slashdot.org/submission/1186268/Livejournal-Secretly-Stealing-Affiliate-Links :

"Detective work by Livejournal users has turned up a Javascript file that stealthily changes users' outgoing links to e-commerce sites upon clicking, including substitution of affiliate IDs with a different ID number. There's no mention of this in the TOS or in recent code updates. More damningly, there's a secret setting in the LJ console that turns this behavior off. With over a million active users, that's a lot of affiliate theft."
[User Picture]
From:jenett
Date:March 4th, 2010 07:49 pm (UTC)
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I've got an invite code - will bounce it to you in a moment.

(I've got 4 others currently, too, so if anyone else wants one, let me know how to get it to you.)

I'm very very happy with Dreamwidth, incidentally.
[User Picture]
From:kshandra
Date:March 4th, 2010 07:50 pm (UTC)
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I already sent him one....
[User Picture]
From:baxil
Date:March 4th, 2010 09:27 pm (UTC)
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Choosing at random from the invite codes I was sent, I'll use this one. Thank you!
[User Picture]
From:kshandra
Date:March 4th, 2010 07:50 pm (UTC)
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Any volunteers to provide me with an invite code?

Done.
[User Picture]
From:baxil
Date:March 4th, 2010 09:28 pm (UTC)
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I chose at random from the codes I was sent and will use jenett's, so thank you and feel free to reuse this!
[User Picture]
From:dancinglights
Date:March 4th, 2010 08:15 pm (UTC)
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Looks like the invite code bit is taken care of. I have one spare if you know anyone else who needs/wants.

I do my SRS posting there and link to it from lj, which has inertia as usually-brainless social networking. Same bat channel.
[User Picture]
From:dancinglights
Date:March 4th, 2010 08:22 pm (UTC)
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From further down the rabbit hole in links from this post: supposed sneaky admin console 'stop that' value: http://caffeinepuppy.livejournal.com/214632.html
[User Picture]
From:baxil
Date:March 4th, 2010 09:11 pm (UTC)
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Thank you. The only reason I didn't specify the fix in my original post is that patching this on a person-by-person basis does not solve the problem. (And if I were to fix it, AFAIK it doesn't fix the problem on my journal, only on what I read.)

So either LJ fixes this globally, or I'm done.
[User Picture]
From:dancinglights
Date:March 4th, 2010 09:12 pm (UTC)
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Yeah, it's definitely not a fix. But it's something I'm going to do anyway and encourage other folks to while this is going down.
[User Picture]
From:goldkin
Date:March 4th, 2010 08:52 pm (UTC)
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I fully intend to hold out on LiveJournal for now. Not because I'm a particularly big user of it (I'm not) or especially care for their brand of service (I don't).

Instead, I have two reasons. First, I expect this decision to be reversed, and rapidly swept under the rug as yet another bad idea or scapegoated as someone sneaking in changes. Preferably heads will roll, but I don't expect that to happen unless it hits the mainstream press.

Second, Dreamwidth (while an interesting service) seems extremely limited for my interests. With the significantly smaller community, interesting bugs (here, for instance), and mandatory invite-or-pay model similar to LiveJournal's early days, I'm less inclined to use their service than I would something like LJ. Doubly so when I already pay $12/mo for a web server already hosting my main and infrequently updated art blog.

That said, if I am entirely wrong and LiveJournal attempts to rationalize this decision, I expect a sizeable portion of the community to jump ship. In which case, at least two of those concerns will be moot.


(And while I asked for an invite yesterday on kistaro's post, soreth was kind enough to drop me one yesterday evening. They're better allocated elsewhere.)
[User Picture]
From:arethinn
Date:March 5th, 2010 03:52 am (UTC)
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interesting bugs (here, for instance)

...

That sure IS interesting! Funny, too. (I like how the last obviously-wrong-count one is Remus/Sirius/Tonks (as in fanfic pairing)).

mandatory invite-or-pay model

There's a community where people give away invite codes (since most people don't know what to do with all the ones they get). It's largely meant to control rate of growth. If you object to it on principle, of course, that's different.
[User Picture]
From:eclective
Date:March 4th, 2010 09:04 pm (UTC)
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If you move, let me know. You're one of the people whose writings on LJ I most enjoy; if you jump ship it'll be worth me getting an account over there and crossposting.
[User Picture]
From:baxil
Date:March 5th, 2010 12:01 am (UTC)
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Thanks for the vote of confidence. kistaro and tracerj leaving were the primary factor in my decision to colocate, so I understand the "follow the folks you like" urge.

I will announce any move.
[User Picture]
From:lienne
Date:March 4th, 2010 09:30 pm (UTC)
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Ouch. A thousand gallons of ouch.

Signal boosted.

Would you mind telling me your Dreamwidth username? I'd like to continue reading you over there.
[User Picture]
From:baxil
Date:March 4th, 2010 09:45 pm (UTC)
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baxil. (I mentioned it in the latest edit to this post, but your comment came in before my edit.)

I will specifically post here if I decide to leave; and even if I do, I'm very likely to use DW's crosspost feature to mirror what I write here.
[User Picture]
From:lienne
Date:March 4th, 2010 09:46 pm (UTC)
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Thank you. Just in case, I've added you to my DW reading list.
[User Picture]
From:kistaro
Date:March 4th, 2010 11:34 pm (UTC)
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Bonus: LiveJournal just put up a News post, which completely ignores this.
[User Picture]
From:baxil
Date:March 5th, 2010 12:04 am (UTC)
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However, there's good news in the comments:

"Support is in the process of answering [the support requests regarding this]; we have just begun the process of pulling this script, so it may take a short while."
[User Picture]
From:arethinn
Date:March 5th, 2010 01:47 am (UTC)
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Which still doesn't tell us a damn thing about just what the possible above-board "intended behavior" of the script could be...
[User Picture]
From:baphnedia
Date:March 5th, 2010 01:58 am (UTC)
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I think somehow the intended behavior was supposed to be in the category of 'not get caught'. :)
[User Picture]
From:arethinn
Date:March 5th, 2010 02:10 am (UTC)
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*snerk*
(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]
From:arethinn
Date:March 5th, 2010 03:49 am (UTC)
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I'm guessing not. I have no idea how one would actually calculate the amount of damages, anyway.
(Deleted comment)
From:drake [begriffli.ch]
Date:March 5th, 2010 03:18 am (UTC)
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Do you see why I insist on only remaining by OpenID here now?

From:(Anonymous)
Date:March 8th, 2010 01:15 pm (UTC)
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Observation:
The link to www.crittersbythebay.com seems to work now, with NoScript both allowing and forbidding LJ scripts.

Hypothesis(tentative):
Maybe the script is removed?
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