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Adware maker sues over 'high risk' designation

180solutions files suit against Zone Labs for allegedly warning some customers about its products.

Advertising software maker 180solutions has filed suit against security company Zone Labs for allegedly telling some of 180solutions' customers that its software products are "high risk."

Such a characterization has damaged the reputation of the products, 180solutions contends, prompting one potential business partner to postpone a deal and many of 180solutions' users to uninstall the software, according to a copy of the suit obtained by CNET News.com.

The suit comes as 180solutions attempts to improve its public image and continues to take fire from anti-spyware groups, which characterize many adware products as computer-privacy time bombs.

Now, 180solutions is firing back. In the lawsuit, filed in the Superior Court of King County, Wash., last month, the company claimed that Zone Labs identified both the Zango and 180search Assistant applications, which deliver pop-up ads to users as they perform Web searches, as a "potential threat to the user's security and/or privacy."

These claims are false, according to 180solutions. The Bellevue, Wash.-based company has asked for unspecified monetary damages and an injunction forcing Zone Labs to cease its current classification of the products.

Anti-spyware and adware companies have feuded for years as Internet users have unwittingly installed ad-supported software that displays or downloads advertisements while an application is being used. Adware companies are often willing to pay others to distribute their software products, a policy that has led to many well-publicized abuses, according to anti-spyware advocates.

These abuses have included attempts to bury download disclosures in lengthy legalese; installing software surreptitiously through Web browser security holes; and making it difficult to uninstall the pop-up programs.

"In my opinion, 180solutions is a perfectly legitimate target for anti-spyware companies," said Eric Howes, a spyware researcher at the University of Illinois. "The bottom line is that we continue to find unethical and illegal installations of 180's software."

At the heart of 180solution's suit is the assertion made by San Francisco-based Zone Labs that 180's products try to monitor a user's "mouse movements and keyboard strokes."

180solutions says that because it uses the programming function Windows API Hook, which can be used to track keyboard strokes and mouse movements, Zone Labs erroneously concluded that it's taking advantage of the function in this way.

"That's just flat-out wrong," said Sean Sundwall, a spokesman for 180solutions. The company said it tried to inform Zone Labs executives that its assessment was wrong, but failed to convince them.

"The legal option was the only one we had," Sundwall said. "But this is not the start of a wave of lawsuits against anti-spyware companies."

A Zone Labs representative did not return phone calls seeking comment on Thursday.