QUESTION: WHO owns the branding rights to your computer?
Answer: Anyone smart enough to write a program that turns your PC into a billboard.
It sounds strange, but it's true. We're bombarded by thousands of commercial messages every day, and we've learned to tune out most of them. So, advertisers are always searching for new ways to reach us, and our computers are inviting targets for marketers trying to build brand awareness and Web masters trying to capture our eyeballs for their advertisers, by hook or crook.
In most corners of our lives, we put limits on this kind of exploitation. For example, most of us would never dream of letting a local merchant slap a bumper sticker on our cars every time we drove through the lot.
In Maryland, there's even a law that prohibits automobile dealers from slapping a dealership nameplate on a new car without the buyer's consent. Yet, many of us allow our computers to be hijacked as marketing vehicles by programmers who figure we're too ignorant or lazy to do anything about it.
A prime target is your Web browser's home page - the site that appears when you start up the program. I ran into the problem last week trying to help my sister, who installed America Online software as a precaution in December, when her cable company warned that it might have to cut off Internet service during the Excite@Home meltdown. She never lost her cable connection, but she complained that she still couldn't "get out of AOL," after she'd uninstalled the software.
I asked her if she had to enter her AOL screen name and password every time she logged on. No, she said, "But whenever I go on the Web, I'm on AOL. It's right there on my screen."
What happened? AOL's installation routine had changed her browser's default home page to aol.com. When she removed the AOL software, it left her browser pointing to AOL's Web site. An oversight? Perhaps. But how many former users are still staring at AOL's home page every day?
Home page flipping is easy to do through simple browser commands, and it's frequently practiced by ISPs when you first establish an account. They want your eyeballs, regardless of whether your previous home page was a destination you found more useful. Unscrupulous Web masters - including those operating porn sites - can do the same thing: You suddenly find yourself with a home page that's not only unfamiliar, but downright offensive.
Luckily, a home page hijacking is fairly simple to undo. In Internet Explorer, just click on the Tools menu, choose Internet Options and replace the offending home page by typing the address of the page you prefer.
I ran into a more sophisticated branding assault over the weekend when I installed new software from Comcast Cable, which provides my high-speed Internet service at home. The program was ostensibly designed to switch my e-mail settings to Comcast's new system. When it was finished, however, I found that my Web browser home page had been switched from my home page to Comcast's. Moreover, both Interenet Explorer and Microsoft's Outlook Express e-mail now sported Comcast logos in the corner of the screen, and the title bars were emblazoned with the words, "Provided by Comcast."
Restoring my default home page was easy enough, but I was annoyed and intrigued by the rest of the changes. So I did a little research and found that Microsoft provides ISPs, computer makers and corporate network administrators with a toolkit that allows them to "brand" Internet Explorer and Outlook Express with their own logos, messages, toolbar buttons and lists of "favorite" Web sites. All of these can be attuned to legitimate purposes - or to making your PC a marketing platform.
Eventually, I learned that the custom logos were stored in a folder called Signup tucked away in the Internet Explorer folder. When I moved the Signup folder to another location on my hard drive, IE restored its original logos. If you try this, don't delete the Signup folder, as it can help restore your account information should you ever have to reinstall Windows.
Getting rid of branded page titles requires a bit more doing - and may not be something you want to try if you're unfamiliar with Windows. To eliminate Internet explorer branding, you can hit the Start button, click on Run and enter this command in the blank form that appears:
Removing Outlook Express branding requires a session with Windows' Registry Editor, which controls the operating system's vital settings and shouldn't be trifled with (always back up your user.dat and system.dat files before chaging the registry).
I won't go into the details, but I found a technical explanation in Microsoft's KnowledgeBase (http://support.microsoft.com, articles Q176497 and Q176713). For more readable instructions, try the Microsoft MVP site (www.mvps.org/inetexplorer/answers2.htm#branding_IE), or Forrest & Associates (www.forrestandassociates.co.uk/pcforrest/ie_facelift.htm).
Of course, none of these articles answers the big question: Why should I have to do this in the first place?