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10/8/2009
06:36 PM
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Firefox Automation Plug-In Draws Legal Threat

A free file downloading site wants to stop Mozilla from distributing a Firefox plug-in that lets users bypass its ads.

MediaFire, a free file hosting service, last week demanded that Mozilla stop distributing the Firefox plug-in SkipScreen, which automates interaction with free file sharing sites to allow users to bypass forced waiting periods used to display ads and limit bandwidth bills.

"The SkipScreen tool has only one purpose, to bypass legitimate Web pages of free file hosting sites, steal bandwidth from them, [and take users directly to hidden download pages]," MediaFire's letter to Mozilla says.

Free file hosting sites such as RapidShare and zShare typically make money by forcing users to wait for long periods while ads are displayed before allowing files to be downloaded. It's a business model that once worked well for the broadcast industry.

MediaFire says that it's different and allows users instant access to download links, without forced wait times.

But just as digital video recorders have given TV viewers the ability to bypass ads, browser plug-ins give Internet users similar power to control what they see and how they see it.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has elected to help SkipScreen defend itself and senior staff attorney Fred von Lohmann offers this succinct response in a blog post: "It's my browser, and I can ignore your ads if I want to."

MediaFire claims that SkipScreen steals bandwidth, but von Lohmann asserts that's not accurate. SkipScreen merely automates the user's actions, he insists, and the downloaded file uses no more bandwidth when requested automatically than when requested manually.

MediaFire may lose advertising revenue in the process, but that's a consequence of consumer choice.

A MediaFire spokesperson counters that the company has no issue with scripts like Greasemonkey which allow automation. SkipScreen, the spokesperson said in an e-mail, "puts its own page on top of our page and then shows its own ads to the user effectively preventing the user from using our file sharing system or browsing more files. The only reason Skipscreen shows this page on top of ours is so they can display their own ads (Google ads)."

Von Lohmann also challenges MediaFire's claim that the plug-in violates the site's acceptable use policy because users never agree to such a policy in the course of their interaction with the site.

"Sure, MediaFire probably would prefer that we all sit, transfixed, while they display ads for us, just like certain Hollywood executives wish we would never leave the couch or hit FFWD when commercials run during our favorite TV shows, and certain websites wish they could ban Firefox ad-blockers," he says in his online post. "Fortunately, there's nothing in the law that says that by simply visiting a Web site, I give up the right to control my desktop."

Update:Clarified MediaFire's difference from other sites; added comment from MediaFire.


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