Active Virus Shield software is likely to become the highest-profile alternative to for-pay security software.
Active Virus Shield offers basic protection against viruses, spyware and other malicious software, AOL said in a statement Monday. The product is available to all Internet users, not just to subscribers to AOL's Internet access service.
"Antivirus protection is too important to make people have to pay for it," an AOL representative told CNET News.com in an e-mail interview. "We want to make sure that everyone is protected from viruses and spyware, and we believe that making Active Virus Shield available for free will help make the Internet a safer place for all."
The protective tool is being delivered in partnership with Kaspersky Lab, a well-respected Russian antivirus software maker.
Active Virus Shield is not the only free antivirus product available, but it is likely to become the highest-profile alternative to for-pay products from vendors such as Symantec, McAfee and Microsoft. Other no-cost antivirus options are Grisoft's AVG Anti-Virus, Alwil Software's Avast, and ClamWin, which is based on the open-source Clam AntiVirus engine.
A study released in December by AOL and the National Cyber Security Alliance found that 56 percent of participants either had no antivirus protection or had not updated it within the previous week, which exposed them to serious security threats.
While AOL doesn't ask for money, Active Virus Shield users have to agree to let AOL and its partners deliver ads to them. "As a condition for your use of the software, you agree to receive promotions and periodic e-mail messages from us and our affiliates," according to the fine print in the license and user agreement of the software.
Active Virus Shield collects a host of information that may be used for marketing purposes, starting with the e-mail address required to download and run the product, according to the fine print. Other data collected include usage stats, responses to ads and details about the PC, according to the AOL agreement.
Alongside the antivirus software, AOL ships an Internet Explorer toolbar. The Microsoft toolbar includes an indicator for the PC's security status, a password manager, a pop-up blocker and a link to a Web site for more information on suspicious sites, the Web company said. It also includes an AOL Web search box, which can drive traffic to AOL Search.
Active Virus Shield rounds out AOL's menu of free security tools, which covers Active Security Monitor and the AOL Safety and Security Center, among others. The company is also developing a for-pay package called "AOL Total Care" that combines security and PC maintenance tools.
"We know that online security is not a 'one size fits all' proposition," the AOL representative said. "That's why we're offering a comprehensive line-up of safety and security products...The thought is that users will choose the solutions that best suit their needs."
Active Virus Shield works with the XP, NT, 2000, ME, and 98 editions of Windows. It requires Internet Explorer 5.5 or later to run, and about 50MB of spare hard disk space.