Not all adware is badware

Hotbar.com CEO Oren Dobronsky issues a challenge to purveyors of legitimate adware and ad-supported software.

There is a lot of confusion among Internet users as to the difference between adware and spyware. Adware--generally defined as software installed by consenting users seeking free, value-added services in exchange for exposure to advertisements--is often confused with, or used interchangeably with, the term spyware--advertising-based software often installed without the user's knowledge or consent. As a result, adware is frequently, yet inappropriately, treated like spyware as a virus or malicious software by anti-spyware programs.

To end this confusion, adware vendors and marketers must do a better job of teaching consumers and the software industry how to distinguish adware from spyware. After all, the notion of providing services in return for viewer eyeballs is not new and is comparable to viewing advertisements in any other medium, such as network television, radio and newspapers.

The mere fact that the software is showing ads should not taint it as illegitimate or cause users to associate it with malicious software.

The mere fact that the software is showing ads should not taint it as illegitimate or cause users to associate it with malicious software. However, when legitimate adware is listed in an anti-spyware scanning process, it acquires an unjustified negative reputation and falls victim to a serious churn problem that afflicts much legitimate software, since users usually eliminate the application by clicking on a default button to "clean" or "remove" suspicious software.

Industry leaders such as Symantec have come to recognize the need to differentiate between adware applications and also between vendors that practice 100 percent transparency and those that do not. As such, 100 percent transparent advertising-based software will be classified by Symantec as low-risk with the recommendation not to remove. That provides users with the choice, and it is a meaningful step for the whole industry.

I would like to go further and see a day when the term "adware" is reserved for platforms created solely for displaying ads, while the term "ad-supported software" is applied to programs that provide consumer benefits in return for exposure to commercial messages.

I also propose that we in the industry who produce legitimate adware and ad-supported software adhere to any guidelines set by online-privacy watchdog Truste and adopt the following practices and guidelines:

Adware should never be part of a third-party bundle deal or have any affiliate distributors. It should be downloaded only directly from the company's Web site.

• Adware should never be part of a third-party bundle deal or have any affiliate distributors. It should be downloaded only directly from the company's Web site.

• All advertisements should be easily identified and clearly labeled with the company's brand so that the association between the advertisements and the adware is totally transparent. Users should understand that instead of paying for the software, they are getting advertising.

• Software should be clearly identifiable in the standard Windows add/remove programs list so that a simple and complete uninstall option is available at any time.

• Software should be prominently displayed on computer systems, with a clear interface on the desktop to ensure that users are fully aware of its existence. It is not acceptable for adware or spyware to run behind the scenes, operate in stealth mode or in any way deceive consumers about its existence.

• Adware makers should offer ad-free (yet paid) versions of their software.

Adware companies that follow these rules of transparency should not be viewed as threats and should not be detected by anti-spyware/antivirus vendors. I also hope that those vendors embrace Truste's certification and respect it by not detecting certified software. Until then, anti-spyware vendors will continue to unjustly categorize much adware as malicious software.

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