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Fur Affinity's silent test of VigLink causes controversy

Your rating: None Average: 4.6 (9 votes)

In the hopes of garnering more revenue for its ever-expanding site, Fur Affinity has turned to VigLink, a tool which helps sites earn commission from online stores. Unfortunately for staff, its use violated the site's own terms of service, leading to cries of foul play once discovered.

Fur Affinity has now apologized for the unannounced roll-out, and updated their ToS to notify users. But what was all the fuss about?

What is VigLink?

VigLink - a service founded by previous Microsoft employee Oliver Roup - rewrites links to stores so as to earn a commission for purchases made at them. Here is a video on how they operate.

From a user standpoint, from now on when you click a link in Fur Affinity, the third-party JavaScript code will check if the site you're visiting belongs to an affiliate. If it does, they will add their referral code; if you purchase a product, both VigLink and Fur Affinity earn a referral fee.

The controversy

Fur Affinity "tested" this 'multi-affiliate' program for five days without disclosing it to their user base, or changing a line in the ToS which said:

Fur Affinity does not engage in active data collection of its users. Your personal information will not be resold or distributed except within the Fur Affinity network (main site, forums).

From the VigLink FAQ page:

Will my users notice? Should I disclose it?

Most users do not notice on their own although we highly recommend you disclose it. VigLink does not change the user experience one bit. No links are inserted or removed on the page, there are no double-underlines or pop-ups, and mousing over a link looks "clean."

The US Federal Trade Commission requires that you disclose use of affiliate links. More information and tools are available.

Even if you are not subject to FTC jurisdiction, we strongly recommend you disclose. Our customers have found that readers are completely understanding if they are informed and can be upset if they are surprised. Informing your users will give those who desire it the opportunity to permanently opt-out. Although VigLink is unobtrusive, it is easily detectable by savvy users.

The answer to the question was almost a play-by-play as to what occurred next; a tech-savvy user found out about the program through the source code and complained on Fur Affinity's forums. As a result, users became upset.

The FTC regulation regarding this issue mentioned above can be found here on §255.5, beginning on page 75. This statute says that if someone is recommending a product for someone else, and receiving some form of payment for that, they must disclose that they are receiving payment.

However, before throwing the book, there's a catch: The FAQ and statute seem to assume a 'one to one' relationship between the secretly-paid advertiser and the consumer. If Fur Affinity tested the software by waiting for someone to naturally make a sincere suggestion, that doesn't seem to be a violation. If Dragoneer made a recommendation without disclaimer, knowing he'd be compensated, then he did violate the statute. (He did link to Wacom in a journal yesterday, but I didn't find Wacom on the affiliate list, so this was presumably a sincere recommendation.)

Belated announcement

Dragoneer admitted that the roll-out of the affiliate links was handled improperly:

We should have alerted people to this sooner. I admit that, and it should have gone better. It was overlooked while we were still performing research, and were testing out the functionality to make sure this thing didn't bring down the site or cause further problems. In doing so, we should have announced what was going on, and that it anonymously recorded the data. It didn't happen. A lot was going on this week, and it just didn't happen like it should have.

The ToS has since been updated, and an announcement was made regarding the new revenue service on the main page, saying that proceeds will go toward "coding efforts", "hardware procurement" or "bandwidth costs". Dragoneer also made a personal journal regarding the events, explaining the change and apologizing for not updating the ToS earlier.

Opting out of VigLink

While VigLink does collect statistical information, it does appear that this information is non-personal for those clicking on affiliate links. While IP addresses are tracked to the site, it seems the only information that goes back to Fur Affinity is the number of times an affiliate received purchases by their users.

Even so, users can opt out of being tracked (and it appears that script- and ad-blockers will prevent it from functioning automatically). This will disable VigLink's tracking on any website, not just Fur Affinity. You will need to revisit this site to remain opted-out if you clear your cookies. Dragoneer has also posted directions for an FA-specific opt-out that is not cookie-based.

Comments

Your rating: None Average: 1 (1 vote)

Auspicious beginnings if I've ever seen them. :P

Your rating: None Average: 5 (2 votes)

I noticed when it started, because I'm running the Ghostery extension which blocks it. Even so, FA's hard opt-out doesn't work reliably. Here's a screenshot:

Ghostery continues to report VigLink attempting to fetch its cookie even though the control panel shows I've selected to opt-out. (Yes, I did save the setting. Ghostery reports the cookie is on some pages, but not others.)

Even if the cookie disables VigLink's normal functionality, they're still able to track users from site to site, which is what's heinous about this sort of thing. (They can't identify me personally, but they can tell that the same person who was on FA is now on some other site, and they can build a profile based on sites visited.)

Your rating: None Average: 3 (2 votes)

did you clear out your cookies entirely and log back into furaffinity? I think it'll still follow you and stuff even if that setting is set to block it if you've gone there before setting it that way (either on the site or in ghostery). I'm just guessing, though

Your rating: None Average: 5 (1 vote)

I guess the hardest work around would never to be to never click on any outside sites on FA you wouldn't want to be seen going to. I would say that yes, it is probably checking for the 'opt out' so it still has to do something unfortunately. Is Ghostery a tool anyone can download? I think it'd be useful to have, not just for FA's sake, but alot of other websites that could be running things in the background.

Your rating: None Average: 5 (2 votes)

(They can't identify me personally, but they can tell that the same person who was on FA is now on some other site, and they can build a profile based on sites visited.)

Is this a matter of they simple could if they wanted to, or that they actually do build a profile instead of just aggregate data (e.g. of the form: 5 people from FA went to this eBay link, 6 to this Amazon link, and not recording profiles like who went to both)? If it is just about the potential to record such things, that is true of pretty much any site, especially ones with ads.

Issues of whether FA should have done this and/or announce it aside, it seems like a lot of people suddenly claimed to have great issue with tracking and statistics technologies on the web. Yet they only seem to care about the FA case, never actually taking any precautions or do anything about the larger issue, as opposed, for example, to finding an extension as pointed out in the parent post here. If taking some of the hyperbole of such types seriously, you would think they would rip the network adapter right out of their computer if you showed them just what normal webservers log by default, let alone what data you can get if you actually tried to collect it via a website. FA might be making an effort, token or not, to play nice, but most of the web does not. So it seems some people demonstrate they don't really care about the issue at hand other beyond looking to seek out drama and something to complain about, and they drown out those that are more serious and consistently care about the actual issue. Hopefully, for a few at least, the drama will be a lesson in how the web works, instead of just a buttress to some petty opinion of the nature of furries.

Your rating: None Average: 5 (1 vote)

You know there is a lot of misinformation about this whole thing when the Tech-Savvy user who found the VigLink code in the first place is telling people they're being too paranoid:

http://forums.furaffinity.net/threads/106591-VigLink-what-data-does-it-collect?p...

"The only things they could really do with any data they could possibly be collecting is coming up with regional statistics about how products are selling and website statistics for FA.

When I posted the thread, the main problem I had was that FA had installed something that generated revenue through the actions of users, without telling anyone, while transmitting data to a third party. It was strange, it was weird, it was something 99% of site administrators would tell their users about beforehand or at the very least right away, and most importantly, violated FA's ToS. There was also some minor disappointment, because I thought things like this would be handled better with the new staff.

Anyways, it's not like it's tracking all your Amazon purchases, just the ones that would be linked to on FA, which is probably only music and printed media anyways (I just don't see anyone on FA reviewing their toaster and linking to it in a journal)."

--Accountability

Your rating: None

you wouldn't allow people to say NO to get free money :3

Your rating: None Average: 3.9 (7 votes)

Oh FA, why does everyone hate you yet find it impossible to completely walk away?

Your rating: None Average: 5 (1 vote)

inkbunny, e621, artspots, deviantart... hey.

Your rating: None Average: 3.1 (8 votes)

Careful you don't get labelled as anti-FA for pointing out when they violate their TOS and possibly federal guidelines. FA is really making bad decisions lately. Apparently this decision was put through the whole admin structure and not one person pointed out it would violate the TOS. You'd almost think stunts like this were why they hadn't yet released their Code of Conduct.

"If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind."
~John Stuart Mill~

Your rating: None Average: 2.4 (9 votes)

As yer average gynophobic furfag might put it, "VigiLinks? EWWWWW!"

Your rating: None Average: 5 (1 vote)

I use the no-script extension in firefox I was wondering what the new thing fa was using when no-script was seeing a new script running on the site I just forbid it from ever running.

Your rating: None

Ha! (:D

Your rating: None Average: 3.7 (3 votes)

Dragoneer lied.
Saying yes or no won't change the fact your IP/keywords/url and nickname will be sent, and Viglink now owns legally your infos and can legally sell them to advertising companies worldwide.

Opting out from viglink efficiently:

Edit the "Hosts" file located in c:/windows/system32/drivers/etc/ - all you need is Notepad.
Add the following:

127.0.0.1 viglink.com
127.0.0.1 api.viglink.com
127.0.0.1 cdn.viglink.com

Save, and do a run > ipconfig /renew or wait until you reboot your PC.
you will be safe.

Your rating: None Average: 1.8 (5 votes)

Don't have an FA account, but... what if you're using a Mac?

Your rating: None Average: 1 (1 vote)

if you chose mac, you agreed to be spyed anyways (itunes, "apps", updates and packages all controlled by apple)

i seriously hope you guys don't do this...

Your rating: None Average: 3.3 (3 votes)

That stops that one domain and two subdomains from logging your IP and other info. It only leaves a billion other sites that log similar info, some of which already sell the info and many others that may random decide at some point to do so. Any effective solution to such issues will be at the expense of usability of the internet, and the only completely effective solution is to unplug your computer.

Your rating: None

it is dangerous to go alone.
take this.
http://nowhereincoming.free.fr/bbs/winstuff/hosts

Your rating: None Average: 3 (11 votes)

Users must know the truth.
Users must know Dragoneer now exploits them.
Users have the right to decide or not if they want their activity being logged and recorded by a third party company.
Users have the right to disagree with Dragoneer's lies.
Users have the right to say NO to this whole commercial system.

Your rating: None

I find rewriting links automatically without the poster's prior knowledge to be sort of shady dealings. What does this mean for the numerous FA musicians that use Bandcamp to distribute music outside of FA?

FML. I need a website, but I have not a domain.

Your rating: None

I don't think Bandcamp is an affiliate, so while the link you provide will still have the code added to it, FA will not make any commision on the sales, and the code should (presumably depending on the trustworthiness of inks) stop tracking you the moment it sees the website is not within its list of affiliates.

Your rating: None

Somehow I feel that if Dragoneer had been upfront about this from the start, there'd be less stink because of it. (There'd still be some, surely, but that's because people tend to not like 'Neer.) Of course, FA staff is not known for making the best administrative descisions.

Well, at least you can opt out of it. I personally don't mind (though the ToS violation irked me) because the worst I go to from FA is WikiFur, or MyFaceWhen.

Your rating: None

I'm just relieved that there are people watching for this kind of stuff, this one was a huge mistake but one I feel made on ignorance, not with nefarious intent.

Your rating: None

Exactly. They're people, not ebul. To err is human.

Your rating: None Average: 4 (1 vote)

"this" by the way referring to the topic at hand, not your suspension, which I feel is not only warranted, but I had warned you about before you kept digging yourself into your anger over, in your own words, 'a rock'.

Your rating: None

I know what you were refering to, Sonious. :/

Your rating: None Average: 2.3 (4 votes)

Yeah. Gonna have to agree with Sonious on this one; that was a good administrative decision.

Shut the fuck up.

No, you didn't harass anyone. They were being euphemistic when they said "harass." Harass, in this case, means "being a fucking deuchebag."

Equivamp, when I say this, I'm not censoring you, because I have no actual power to make you do it, so it's only a suggestion, okay. What I'm trying to say is this. You have free speech, and you can say those things; what you fail to understand what you can say and should say are completely different things. You have a right to be a fucking deuchebag, protected under the constitution. But why in the hell would you want to be a fucking deuchebag?

You're still in high school, unless that's changed recently, but at the most you're a freshman in college in her first month, still taking the dorky arbitrary "welcome to college" course, so it's a bit forgiveable you haven't, well, grown up yet.

Your rating: None

I am afraid to read what you might write about me :O

Your rating: None Average: 5 (4 votes)

you fail to understand what you can say and should say are completely different things.

Yeah, just because you can bring or continue off-topic drama here, doesn't mean you should...

Your rating: None Average: 4.5 (2 votes)

Well, five stars for a very good burn, Mr. Anonymous man.

Your rating: None

I know my suspension was warranted; I fully expected it. My only beef was, I was suspended for calling a dead user selfish, but being told to kill myself and in general actually harassed, the staff decided that it was not harassment. I respect your opinion and understand the basis behind it, but if you would like further discussion on this topic, you may contact me at any number of personal venues and keep the comment threads here tidy.

Your rating: None

I was apparently looking for a fight last night.

It was weird.

Your rating: None

FA has announced that they are no longer using Viglinks on FA:

"Further, we have discontinued use of Viglink (our ad referral software) due to users concerns regarding privacy. Many users have expressed concerns, and after a discussion with internal staff and those from other galleries, we agreed that it was in the community's best interest to discontinue its usage"

http://www.furaffinity.net/journal/5839269

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About the author

Sonious (Tantroo McNally)read storiescontact (login required)

a Kangaroo from Syracroose, NY, interested in video games, current events, politics, philosophy and writing