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Symantec files suit to label adware

Lawsuit seeks right to detect Hotbar's toolbar programs as adware--a new move in the tug of war between security providers and marketers.

Symantec has filed a lawsuit against a New York Internet company for the right to detect its toolbars as adware.

The suit, which does not seek any monetary damages, was filed against late Tuesday in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, San Jose Division, said Cris Paden, a Symantec spokesman.

The move is a preemptive strike. Last October, Hotbar contacted Symantec, an Internet security software maker based in Cupertino, Calif. It complained about Symantec's enterprise antivirus products, which flag the Hotbar programs as adware, Paden said.

"We have been talking with (Hotbar) for the last several months, and over the course of that time, they have threatened to sue us on a regular basis," Paden said.

Hotbar did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

Debate has gone on for years over adware and spyware, with manufacturers of the applications defending them as legitimate marketing tools. The terms are slippery, frequently used to apply both to information-thieving software and the advertising tools bundled with free software programs.

Makers of software judged to be adware or spyware often protest the labeling of their products as such by security software makers, to the point of threatening lawsuits. Microsoft, which offers an anti-spyware tool, last month asked the U.S. Senate to rewrite legislation to prevent such lawsuits.

Symantec said it is not asking for money, but is seeking an affirmation that Hotbar products are indeed adware and can be treated as security risks. "We are simply asking for the judge to say that we are within our rights to detect Hotbar," Paden said. The company would then be able to help customers remove the toolbars from their PCs.

Hotbar offers toolbars for Microsoft's Internet Explorer Web browser and Outlook and Outlook Express e-mail clients, according to the company's Web site. Symantec claimed in its lawsuit that the programs display ads based on keywords and log information on the PC user's Web browsing habits, possibly for use in targeted marketing.

Symantec customers have complained about Hotbar products, Paden said. Customers were not clear on what the programs were doing and found that they could not get rid of the applications, he said.

Also, in some cases, the Hotbar programs were installed with other software or when a specific Web site was visited, unbeknownst to the user, according to the lawsuit.

Hotbar isn't at loggerheads with just Symantec. The company has threatened anti-spyware software maker Sunbelt Software with legal action because Sunbelt's CounterSpy product detects Hotbar products as adware, according to a Sunbelt blog posting, confirmed by a company representative. Sunbelt has countered that it won't change CounterSpy, because Hotbar's products meet its criteria of adware.

Additionally, privacy group Truste has revoked Hotbar's right to its seal of approval. The seal is still featured on Hotbar's privacy policy page, but now links to an error page warning that " IS NOT A VALID TRUSTe MEMBER WEB SITE."

A new group, tentatively named the Anti-Spyware Coalition, plans to publish proposed guidelines later this summer that define spyware and adware. The group also intends to offer best practices for desktop software development.

While examples of legitimate and illegitimate behavior aren't hard to find, drawing a clear line between programs has proved difficult. The new group hopes its work will offer clarity for software makers, users and spyware fighters.