The Olympic skier known as 'spam king'

Vancouver silver medalist Dale Begg-Smith reportedly made a small fortune, and plenty of enemies, through pop-up ads and adware designed to be nearly impossible to remove.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
3 min read

Winning a medal at the Vancouver Olympic Games doesn't normally make you a target of derision from your fellow countrymen.

Then again, most Olympic athletes don't have the colorful background of Dale Begg-Smith, the former world-champion mogul skier who is almost as well known for reports about his involvement with adware, browser pop-ups, and other detritus of the seamier side of the Internet.

Canada's Globe and Mail described Begg-Smith as a "Lamborghini-driving 24-year-old who made a fortune peddling invasive Internet spyware." The Australian newspaper cited Begg-Smith's companies as "the origin of spyware programs that can redirect a computer to porn sites or install software that floods the computer with pop-up ads." A New Zealand newspaper reported that his nickname was "spam king," and Silicon Alley Insider dubbed him the "Hated Internet Millionaire Olympic Mogul Champion."

Begg-Smith may have just become the most hated Olympic-level athlete since figure-skater-turned-boxer Tonya Harding.

On Sunday night, Begg-Smith, who won the gold medal at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, lost the men's mogul competition to Canadian Alexandre Bilodeau. Begg-Smith won the silver medal; Bilodeau won the gold with a time of 23.17 seconds and a score of 26.75.

Normally winning a silver medal would still be cause for at least some celebration. But Begg-Smith's change of citizenship from Canadian to Australian (apparently the Canadians weren't as happy with his extracurricular activities) has left his original countrymen famously peeved and the Australians less than enthusiastic.

After Begg-Smith's second place finish in Vancouver this week, one Australian news organization published an article calling him--in the headline, no less--a "sourpuss." Another, the Sydney Morning Herald, labeled the Olympic athlete as "Mr. Miserable" and speculated that he was "simply flying a flag of convenience" with no real ties to Oz.

Canadians were more direct. Facebook groups such as "Dale Begg-Smith is a sourpuss" and another calling him a "traitor" have popped up. Twitter messages after the mogul race have included "traitor," "fake Canadian and all-around jerk," plus other phrases entirely unsuitable for a family publication.

Much of this criticism also stems from Begg-Smith's involvement in Internet advertising, especially pop-up ads. While he has been deliberately vague about his companies, he has acknowledged owning a domain name called AdsCPM.com. A 2002 press release lists Begg-Smith as "president, AdsCPM Network" and describes the venture as "a revolutionary pop-under Internet advertising company." A company called CPM Media has shared the same Internet addresses as AdsCPM.

A 2005 version of AdsCPM.com captured by Archive.org boasts of displaying 20 million pop-up ads a day and says "our download partner does 100,000 software downloads a day." (Web sites for both AdsCPM and CPM Media are currently offline.)

Anti-malware activists have a word for all those software downloads: adware. Critics say that CPM Media/AdsCPM's software is difficult to remove and can point a Web browser to places a user never intended.

SpywareGuide.com lists CPM Media as offering two different types of adware: one, called SecondThought, is a "browser hijacker that will reset your home page and often redirect your searches to porn sites." The other, FreeScratchAndWin, "opens pop-up adverts every few minutes" and is listed as somewhat threatening because it's "nearly impossible to remove manually."

A 2006 profile in the Sydney Morning Herald says the "Olympic gold medalist's business dealings place him on the murky fringes of the Internet where hackers, scammers and spammers stalk their targets...Domain registration and site address records also show AdsCPM as belonging to a stable of dodgy websites flagged in blacklists maintained by reputable antispyware businesses and posted on the Internet."

Since then, Begg-Smith has become even more reclusive, regularly denying reporters' requests for interviews (he restricted his pre-Olympics press conference to Australian media only). He has said that he has "unwound" his online businesses.

The Federal Trade Commission has sued over adware before--deceptive variants are unlawful under federal law--but no regulatory agency has ever made any formal allegations against CPM/AdsCPM or the onetime mogul of moguls.