The story sounds vaguely familiar: a tech company (in this case an Internet service provider) quietly introduces a new feature designed to help it make more money, but unfortunately the feature doesn't work properly quite yet. No problem though since consumers - who don't even know this feature has been enabled on their accounts - are given the choice (?) to opt out. If this sounds reminiscent of Facebook's Beacon stunt, let me introduce you to Road Runner's new domain interception feature.
The feature is designed to intercept "failed DNS requests, redirecting them to RoadRunner's own search and advertising platform". In their own words, "Road Runner has enabled a service to redirect web address errors to a helpful search page. You entered an unknown name that Road Runner used to present site suggestions that you may find useful. Clicking on any of these suggestions provides you with Yahoo! search results, which may include relevant sponsored links."
This sounds simple enough, except that in my case, the system has become a little overzealous and is redirecting pages randomly - even when they are spelled correctly. Here's an example:
In this case, I was trying to load the weather channel but RoadRunner responded by telling me that www.weather.com doesn't exist. Instead it suggested I try one of its sponsored results such as the weatherbug. This has been happening pretty randomly: sometimes the page will load, sometimes RoadRunner will redirect. I've been playing this game for about a week now until I finally decided it's time to get this fixed.
A quick search of ww23.rr.com, the redirection domain, suggested that RoadRunner launched its domain interception feature at the end of February, which roughly coincides with the beginning of my Internet problems. Equipped with this knowledge, I called RoadRunner's customer service to figure out a way to fix this. My initial call wasn't so successful since the first thing the customer service technician suggested was to reset the cable modem. Note that it is always a bad idea to reset the cable modem when you are using an Internet phone service... They really should start asking customers if they are using VOIP before resetting cable modems! :)
With that lesson learned, I called them back. The lady I spoke to seemed unaware of the domain redirection and had to put me on hold to go find out about it. When she came back she said the redirection somehow got switched on, but that she could help me disable the feature. By googling the problem later on, I learned that the feature is ENABLED by default - it seems that is has been turned on on every customer's account.
The opt out feature is "hidden" behind the rather metaphysical sounding "Why am I here?" link that shows up after Road Runner redirects your initial web query. In case you're wondering - no, Time Warner hasn't figured out the meaning of life.
They are merely using the “Why am I here?” question to link to a preferences page which states: “These preferences allow you to opt in or out of the non-existing domain landing service.” Interesting, since I never opted in and my default was set to enable! It seems to me that this is definitely an opt-out, not an opt-in type feature.
I probably never would have noticed this service had it not malfunctioned on my computer. I still don’t know why it did, and Road Runner seemed both unable to tell me, and uninterested in finding out. The problem is that I wasted quite a bit of time trying to figure out what was wrong with my Internet just to find out that my ISP quietly launched a new service that still seems to have a few bugs. Why not just contact customers and let them know that this new service is about to go into effect and that they can opt out?
Seems like Road Runner didn’t pay attention to the recent Facebook Beacon debacle. Facebook similarly tried to sneak in its Beacon program by launching it as an opt-out only system. As we all know, this didn’t go over so well with the Facebook community and Mark Zuckerberg had to cave in to the pressure and make it an opt-in service. I haven’t really seen a big backlash about Road Runner’s new domain redirecting service yet, but I think the overall problem is the same. Why not just let customers decide whether they want this new service? Why not just make it opt-in rather than expect customers to click on a mysterious “why am I here” link to opt out?
Update: I think this system is redirecting valid domains and treating them as misspelled domains if the connection is really slow or times out. At least that's what I've pieced together. Here's another screenshot of the system telling me www.google.com doesn't exist.
Funny, since the Road Runner Redirection FAQ page uses www.google.com as an example in its explanation of domain names:
Update 04/19: Wired just ran a good story explaining domain interception and its potential dangers.