Brian X Chen, New York Times:
I learned this the hard way. For several years, I subscribed to a popular VPN service called Private Internet Access. In 2019, I saw the news that the service had been acquired by Kape Technologies, a security firm in London. Kape was previously named Crossrider, a company that had been called out by researchers at Google and the University of California for developing malware. I immediately canceled my subscription.
In the last five years, Kape has also bought several other popular VPN services, including CyberGhost VPN, Zenmate and, just last month, ExpressVPN in a $936 million deal. This year, Kape additionally bought a group of VPN review sites that give top ratings to the VPN services it owns.
The rest of Chen’s article is worth reading — VPNs are often marketed for their security and privacy promises, but it probably does not make sense for most people to route their web browsing through some third-party company — but these shady review sites caught my eye.
According to a May 2021 Restore Privacy report, Kape bought Webselenese and its vpnMentor and Wizcase review websites. Both websites aggressively push their top three picks which, funny enough, are all owned by Kape. Wizcase also publishes reviews of security software, and picks Intego as the best antivirus software for the Mac; Kape also owns Intego.
But if you were browsing either review website, you would probably miss Kape’s ownership. While a legitimate news organization would typically display conflicts of interest in immediate context, the word “Kape” appears nowhere in the on-page text, nor does it appear on the dedicated ExpressVPN review page. Wizcase’s “About” page says that the review site “believe[s] in transparency” and the footer on every page claims that it is an “independent review site”. vpnMentor says that its “reviews are not based on advertising” and its claims of honesty make it a “powerful transparency tool for the internet”.
There is only one place where a reader could find traces of Kape’s ownership on each site. You must find the small text reading “Ownership” at the top of a review page. On Wizcase’s website, it does not look like a link and it is a terribly low-contrast shade of grey — vpnMentor’s text link is blue — but, if you click on it, the site’s parentage is acknowledged.
This reminds me of those mattress review sites financed by Casper and the defunct tech review site owned by Verizon. It is not a new idea to create advertising masquerading as unbiased reviews, but it is wildly unethical. I wonder if the FTC would agree that the tiny disclosures on Kape’s review sites are adequate.