Will certification legitimize adware?

Net companies promise new program to promote noninvasive software downloads, but skeptics remain.

WASHINGTON--Backers of a new plan to police downloads believe it will put an end to unwanted software that launches pop-up ads and hogs system resources. But critics counter that the program will merely legitimize such software, not make it go away.

The Trusted Download Program, announced here Wednesday, promises to help people avoid adware and spyware by guaranteeing an application does only what it says. The plan's sponsors--mostly large Internet companies--said the program will kick off in a trial version early next year when online privacy watchdog group Truste publishes its first list of certified applications.

"We think this will be the end of unwanted software on your computer," Fran Maier, executive director of Truste, said at an event at the National Press Club here. "Consumers deserve to have control over what's on their computers."

News.context

What's new:
A new certification program backed by industry and lawmakers promises to help people avoid adware and spyware by guaranteeing that a program does what it says.

Bottom line:
Critics say that instead of hindering annoying downloads, the plan will only give such software a seal of approval.

More stories on spyware and adware

On the industry side, the plan is backed by America Online, Yahoo, Computer Associates, Verizon Communications and CNET Networks (parent company of News.com). FTC Commissioner Jon Leibowitz and the Center for Democracy & Technology, a public advocacy group that runs the Anti-Spyware Coalition, have also got behind the push.

The plan also has congressional support from U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and Rep. Mary Bono, R-Calif., who have both proposed anti-spyware legislation.

"I am delighted to see that we have come this far and that the private sector has come up with a solution to a problem that truly stifles commerce on the Internet," Bono said Wednesday. "This is the first time I think we can truly move forward and provide the safety on the Internet that's needed."

But despite its high-profile backers, the plan won't put an end to ad-serving downloads that suck up system resources, critics say. Instead, it will give those applications a seal of approval.

"The problem is that Truste is, in effect, legitimizing adware," said Alex Eckelberry, the president of Sunbelt Software, maker of the CounterSpy anti-spyware tool. "Adware companies such as Claria and WhenU--assuming they get certified--will now have the ability to greatly increase their distribution network, under the cloak of certification."

The Trusted Download Program won't blacklist adware or spyware. Instead, it will give a seal of approval to software that adheres to certain rules. To be certified, makers of the software have to clearly communicate what their product does. The consumer then has to consent prior to download and again when installing the software.

Trust makers

For example, software that displays advertisements or tracks user behavior must disclose what type of ads will be displayed and what information will be tracked, according to the program's backers. The disclosure must also include which user settings may be altered, and must obtain consent for the download.

Furthermore, easy instructions to uninstall the software must be provided and displayed ads must be labeled with the name of the ad-serving software.

180Solutions and Direct Revenue, which make software that serves up ads, were quick to announce Wednesday that they would seek the Trusted Download Program approval. If they are successful, the companies hope their products will no longer be removed by anti-spyware software.

"These criteria represent legitimate best practices and are backed by some of the biggest consumer-facing software companies in the world. We urge anti-spyware companies to use this certification to better distinguish between legitimate downloadable software and nefarious programs," Keith Smith, chief executive of 180Solutions, said in a statement.

The software industry has been trying for some time to draw a line between spyware and adware, which are used to describe software that track people's online activity and sometimes deliver ads to screens. They are both widely disliked for their surreptitious distribution tactics, unauthorized data gathering, consumption of computer processing power and other annoying features.

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