The newly formed Stop Badware Coalition will publish the names of companies that it deems are the worst offenders and show how they make money through unethical marketing practices and fraud.
Joining the coalition are search giant Google, PC maker Lenovo, Sun Microsystems, Consumer Reports' WebWatch project, the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School and the Oxford Internet Institute in England. Internet pioneer Vint Cerf, now Google's chief Internet evangelist, and Esther Dyson, an investor and editor of Release 1.0, are among the advisors to the group. (Release 1.0 is owned by CNET Networks, publisher of News.com.)
Malicious software can get onto an unwitting victim's computer when the user visits malicious Web sites or by downloading games or other software programs.
Users often do not know that their computers have been infected with malicious software until they start being plagued by pop-up ads, popular vehicles for online pornography, or are notified by authorities that their computers have been hijacked to launch attacks on other computers.
It takes even longer to discover that passwords or other sensitive information, like bank account data, have been stolen and an innocent Web surfer's identity has been stolen after spyware is planted onto the computer.
More Americans anticipate falling victim to a cyberattack than a physical crime, according to a survey of almost 700 U.S. adults by IBM, released Wednesday. The anxiety about the possibility of a cyberattack has changed consumer behavior: Half of the survey respondents said they don't use shared wireless networks such as in a coffee shop or airport; 38 percent don't bank online; and 37 percent don't use credit card information online.
Internet surfers can visit the Web site, which is expected to go live on Wednesday at Stopbadware.org, to check whether programs they want to download are infected with spyware, adware or other malicious software, and alert others to malicious programs they have found.
The news comes about two weeks after the--a group comprised of Microsoft, Yahoo, AOL, Symantec, Computer Associates and McAfee--announced it had agreed on standard methods for identifying and combating spyware.
Spyware, adware and other malicious programs--dubbed badware by the coalition--cost victims billions of dollars a year, said John Palfrey, co-director of the StopBadware Coalition and executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society.
"We think it is quite important that as many credible sources stand up and take a stand against (purveyors of malicious software), particularly against people who are profiting from what we think are malicious applications," he said. "Many of these are not illegal."
Nearly 60 million American adults today have badware on their computers, according to a recent Pew Internet & American Life Project. Consumer Reports estimates that it cost home computer users $3.5 billion in 2003 and 2004 to replace or repair their hardware after it was infected with such programs.
The growing problem threatens future use of the Internet, said Cerf.
"I believe the potential growth of the Internet will be limited if we allow invasive badware and spyware to continue to fester without strong action," he said in a statement. "All consumers must be in control of their experiences when they browse the Internet, and the mass proliferation of badware threatens this control. We cannot allow that to continue."
CNET News.com's Joris Evers contributed to this report.