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Contextual ads are those ads you see when you do a search on Google. The advertisers only pay if someone actually clicks on their ad. It seems "pashut" to me that clicking an ad if you know you're not going to buy anything from the site is tantamount to gezel. A friend of mine, however, claims that the advertiser is willing to pay the xyz amount in order to get you to his online store and have a chance at convincing you. Especially since the advertiser goes into this knowing that people may click ads but not buy.

Can anyone think of any sources to prove this one way or another?

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Why is it obvious to you that clicking on a link is tantamount to stealing? What are you stealing and from whom? – WAF Dec 6 '12 at 22:53
Why are you clicking on it then? Presumably if you see something you like you will buy yes? That's all the publisher can hope for. No one is expecting a guaranteed buy. The halacha probably follows the expectation of the seller. He expects people who have an interest to click, but not people who click and then close it without looking. – Ariel Dec 6 '12 at 23:19
Just to be clear, are you speaking about Click fraud (were the entire intent is to cause loss), just bored clicking, or clicking because you have some interest in seeing the site but are not planning to buy? – Michoel Dec 6 '12 at 23:46
@ba the advertiser himself. The fact that the ad is there means he wants you to click on it in order to hopefully buy something. – Shraga Dec 8 '12 at 19:00
So then you can click on it even if you aren't! He wants to click on it in order to hopefully buy something – b a Dec 9 '12 at 2:52

You ask for sources to help decide one way or another which is important since this is not a clear-cut situation.

The classical halachic case closest to this case that I can think of is the question of whether one can enter a shop to browse with no intention of buying (more precisely, knowing full well in advance one doesn't want to buy anything, e.g., to check prices).

It is an example of onaat devarim (hurting with words) and is forbidden (SA CM 228 based on Vayikra 25:17 lo tonu ish et amito and Baba Metzia 58b) to avoid disappointing the seller. It is of course fine to enter the shop, browse and leave if one didn't find something interesting, as long as there was a real possibility one could have bought something.

The rationale for the interdiction is not entirely defined. Halachipedia mentions that the Meiri gives two reasons for the prohibition: (1) other potential customers who observe one’s decision to refrain from purchasing the item would conclude that the item is overpriced and would consequently only buy it for less, causing the seller financial pain and (2) one’s decision to refrain from buying the item, having appeared to be interested, causes the seller to feel dejected.

R Meir Orlian mentions one is taking time from the seller that he could invest to serve other customers.

I think the analogy with clicking on contextual ads holds when building on the latter explanation. If one is sure one will not buy, then clicking is taking resources (money) away from the seller which he could have invested to sell to others. Advertisers will often buy a finite amount of ad impressions so one is taking away a finite resource knowing full well one will not buy. On the other side if there is a small but non nil chance one might buy then it is of course perfectly acceptable to click.

An important limitation of onaat devarim is that it applies primarily to Jews (Rama CM 228:1, one reason is that non-Jews don't have this sort of laws so we don't need to go beyond their law in our relations with them). This has very practical implications when clicking on ads from non-Jewish sellers and outside of Israel.

See here, here and there for relevant discussions of these sources. And please CYLOR if practically relevant.

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First of all, you're mixing up ono'as devorim with genevas da'as, and genevas da'as applies to non Jews as well (kitzur 63:4). However, in this case, the 'owner' doesn't even know you're clicking on the ad. I think it's more of a matter of stealing money, as he's paying for the ads. However, since it's 100% legal to click on it according to most if not all countries, that might mean something in halachah – user613 May 12 at 23:40

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