Austelle describes herself as "a frequent Internet user" who checks her e-mail daily, participates in forums, and has multiple online accounts. But that did not stop her falling for a new loophole by which sites provide software that's available free elsewhere -- and charge for "support" that may be limited or even nonexistent.
Austelle paid a Web site US$33.90 for the Limewire peer-to-peer (P2P) client -- which is available free from sites such as limewire.com. She found the fee-charging site after searching for file downloads in a search engine.
"As soon as I joined, like within 10 minutes, I realized that I had been had, and that Limewire is a free download and is so easy to use that hardly anyone ever needs any assistance," she said.
Austelle was the victim of a new breed of Web sites making money off free software. While companies such as Red Hat have for years charged money to distribute and support free software (particularly Linux), they clearly add value through support and CD distribution.
But some of these new sites charge "membership fees" either to provide a downloadable version of the software copied from a legitimate Web site, or to redirect browsers to the site they should have gone to in the first place. Clearly, they capitalize on the ignorance of net newbies.
Most of these Web sites work similarly. Searching for free software titles such as "Skype" in search engines produces sponsored links that draw the novice user's eye away from the main search results.
The Web sites behind the links charge users a membership fee to download the software. Internet forums and blogs are littered with postings from angry users who did not realize they could get the software free elsewhere, or who claim that the support was cursory at best.
Some sites make it clear that the software is available free elsewhere, and that users are paying for technical support. Not so with www.freedownloadhq.com.
"I tried to find out who to contact," recalls fashion designer Shabazz Torres, who found the site through a Google search. "I replied to an e-mail they sent confirming my payment, but there was no one I could contact to get a refund."
PROMISE OF SUPPORT
FreeDownloadHq.com is registered to XTreme Software Ltd, a company with an English address, but the resident at that address is a formation agent who registers companies on behalf of accountancy firms. He told us that XTreme Software was registered by David Shullick, of Xtreme Innovations in Florida.
Shullick wouldn't speak to us but in a written response, the company said: "We do charge ... because we provide tutorials as well as full technical support on all the programs we offer access to."
However, investigators for security software firm SiteAdvisor were unable to find any support.
Other players appear more legitimate at first glance. Sites such as Download-It-Free.com explain in their FAQ that the software is available free elsewhere. Nevertheless, a callcenter operative gave a slightly different story when we asked why we shouldn't download software such as BitTorrent's P2P client from BitTorrent for free.
"Most of those sites, they won't charge you a one-time fee, but they'll charge you every time you want to download a file. We offer a one-time fee and then you get BitTorrent and the other programs free," the operative said.
BitTorrent does not charge for downloads, meaning the company running the call center for Download-It-Free.com, Montreal-based Market Engines Inc, run by Daniel Assouline and Michael Dadoun, misled us.
Dadoun was once employed by well-respected Nortel Networks, a major Canadian telecommunications company, as senior manager of mergers and acquisitions.
Market Engines is involved with hundreds of Web sites, including Mp3MusicAccess.com, FreeMP3Lover.com and eMuleCenter.com. Many of these sites are part of an affiliation network operated by Cash Engines, a division of Market Engines.
Affiliate networks link merchants with third-party Web sites that advertise links to the merchants' goods and services, driving traffic to them and receiving payments in return.
Many of these merchant sites claim to be owned and operated by MP3 Networks Ltd, a company listed in Malta. The company, which also has an address in the Caribbean, was set up in July 2004, five months before Market Engines started business. Its director and major shareholder is Charles Assouline. We attempted several times to contact MP3 Networks Ltd on its Maltese number, which was never answered.
Dadoun found his callcenter staff's comments "very concerning" as he did with complaints posted to several Internet forums by customers who felt they'd been fooled.
"If that's the way they feel, they can get a refund. That's why we're here," he said.
We e-mailed him details of the comments and agreed to speak again at a prearranged time, but he failed to return calls.
Creating an account on a site supported by Market Engines cost us US$27, including an optional (but pre-selected) US$10 anti-spyware download. The site gave us access to various P2P clients including Limewire, WarezP2P, Exeem and 360Share.
Support staff refused when we asked for help to get a soundcard working, saying they could only support the P2P software. A list of interactive demos also failed to load. We obtained a refund under the company's seven-day money-back guarantee, but the firm retained a US$10 "processing fee." The fee was mentioned in terms and conditions during customer registration, but only if the customer opened a popup window.
The Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) works to promote democratic values and constitutional liberties online. It is mostly concerned with Web sites that explicitly advertise their downloading software as totally legal, in-house lawyer David Sohn said.
"They will often say these services are 100 percent legal, which creates the false impression that anything you do with these services is legal, and consumers might well believe that to be the case because they have paid a fee," he said.
But pursuing companies through the courts can be too expensive for small software firms.
The CDT prompted the US Federal Trade Commission to take action against two such Web sites last year.
"Often we can threaten those sites that we'll turn them over to the FTC and they will stop the bad practices, but they pop up somewhere else," Sohn complained.
Market Engines' merchant, MP3 Networks Ltd, is more guarded about the legality of its files.
After paying for membership we were directed to a "stay legal" file that included information copied from the Electronic Frontier Foundation's site, along with a link to a page, which did not exist, explaining how to turn off file sharing.
When asked how to tell which online files were legal to download, support staff directed us to the Web site of the Recording Industry Association of America.
Sponsored links promoting software download sites such as those supported by Download-It-Free.com are still appearing on search engines such as Google. Enter "P2P" and one of the sponsored links will display terms such as -- "All Legal," "No Download Fees" and "Find P2Ps." This infuriates industry commentators.
"It's funny that Google has this `do no evil' policy but they're allowing lots of consumers to follow these links," said the chief technical officer of one P2P client company.
"We do respond to customer complaints. If there is an area where a customer or advertiser or the owner of a product can start a dialogue with us, then we will take action," said Richard Gregory,Google UK ad sales manager,although he adds that "they're not doing anything illegal, they're probably just not providing the best consumer experience in the world."
BitTorrent's president and chief operating officer Ashwin Navin said that the company has complained repeatedly to Google, but the search engine maintains its relaxed stance towards these revenue-generating Adwords users.
On the other hand, Google doubtless faces the same problem litigators do: there are too many sites to tackle.
However, unlike the bloggers at blog.siteadvisor.com, we could not get FreeDownloadHq.com to appear as a sponsored Google ad, suggesting the company has now filtered it out.
While other such Web sites still appear on search engines, P2P software producers such as Jonathan Milson are suffering, thanks to users who do not understand who they are paying for support.
"A lot of people will contact us and say `I bought your product and I'm not getting the service I requested,'" complained Milson, a representative of the team behind the Shareaza client.
So what is the precise legal position regarding these Web sites?
"We'd prefer it if the guy disappeared," said David Turner, GPL (General Public License) compliance manager at the Free Software Foundation. "But we're not sure there's much we can do."
In some cases, the distribution of free software for a fee seems clearly legitimate. L3 Publishing, a company selling copies of the GIMP open source photo-editing software on eBay, was quick to respond to our queries.
"Yes! The source code and binaries are included on the media as per the terms of the GPL. Also, the CD is plainly labelled as powered by the GNU Image Manipulation Program," the company said. "Nevertheless, like sites charging for free downloads, L3's auction generated lengthy online debates over ethics."
It is harder to assess the legality of many download sites, especially those that lie to potential customers, but if nothing else they are ethically dubious. Posing as a potential merchant, BitTorrent's lawyer was sent an e-mail last November by an affiliate network promoter pointing to a guide on his Web site.
"Another key component of sales in this niche is finding the newbies [sic] user. More savvy users only ask for a refund or, worse, chargeback the subscription," said the guide, now deleted. "New users are generally those who type in `Google' in Google or `Yahoo' into Yahoo. Finding a reliable pool of these folks is the game."
And for Internet users, not being one of these folks is priority one.
"Go and visit a related forum for a few minutes first to see what others are saying," warned Austelle, who eventually managed to get a refund.
"Enter your doubts into the search engine: `xyz membership a scam?' or something," she said.
When charging for free software, the product being traded is not the software itself, and often not even the service, but user ignorance.
The market in naivety remains profitable, and the supply is unlimited. For many, that will clearly remain an attractive business model for a long time to come.
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