Adware maker tries image makeover

180solutions is informing PC users that its ad-serving software is installed and is offering tips on removing it.

In an apparent attempt to shed its image as an aggressive adware pusher, 180solutions is alerting PC users whose computers run its ad-serving software and is offering tips on removing it.

The company on Monday started displaying messages on PCs to inform people that the software is installed on their system, 180solutions spokesman Sean Sundwall said. The message explains that the software displays pop-up ads and offers a link to uninstall the software, he said.

As is common with adware, many people may have unwittingly installed 180solutions' product. It may even have installed itself in a so-called drive-by install, where Web browser vulnerabilities are used to drop and install software on PCs when people visit malicious Web sites. 180solutions software is installed on about 20 million PCs, the company said.

180solutions has dubbed its notification effort a "campaign to renotify customers" to ensure "proper consent and disclosure," the Bellevue, Wash.-based company said in a statement.

The move could in part be triggered by New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who in April sued Web marketer Intermix Media for installing software on people's machines without meaningful consent.

180solutions is under pressure to clean up its act, said Alex Eckelberry, president of anti-spyware software maker Sunbelt Software. 180solutions is "in a bind" because of the threat of litigation, demands from financiers and blacklisting by anti-spyware products, he said.

Sundwall said Spitzer's action is "totally unrelated" to 180solutions' moves.

"We actually were very supportive of Spitzer in this suit as it provided an opportunity to further differentiate the bad actors from the good ones," he said.

180solutions does not deny that its software has been installed on PCs unbeknownst to people. However, it blames "rogue distributors" for those installs. The company relies on about 1,000 third parties who get paid for each installation of the 180search Assistant. 180solutions itself also distributes the Zango Search Assistant.

In the past six months, 180solutions has cut off about 440 distributors, Sundwall said. Also, the company last year sued two of its distributors and is taking technical steps to prevent the illicit installation of its product, he said.

180solutions' software pops up ads based on Web sites a PC user visits. The company pitches the ads as a form of payment for services, such as those it provides on Zango.com, a Web site with games, other online entertainment and software. It claims to provide people with more than $500 worth of content a year in exchange for the ads.

Still, there is skepticism about 180solutions' moves.

"The company's practices are so troubled, damaged from years of bad acts," said Ben Edelman, a Harvard law student and an adware and spyware researcher.

180solutions is still installed without proper consent, Edelman said. Even installations distributed by the closest 180solutions partners "are misleading at best," he said. Furthermore, 180solutions actively discourages uninstalls of its products, said Edelman, who details some of the company's practices on his Web site.

Lawmakers are also fighting adware and spyware. The U.S. House of Representatives last month approved a pair of bills that supporters say will help safeguard Internet users from spyware.

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