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The end of spyware? Fat chance

The dialogue has just begun, but CNET News.com's Charles Cooper says a chasm still separates the opposing sides in this debate.

Why should anyone be surprised that the epidemic of spyware--and its kissing cousin, adware--is getting worse? The raison d'etre for this sort of thing is as American as apple pie.

Call it the unexpected outgrowth of entrepreneurial capitalism. Or if you're wont to take a more cynical view of our affairs, chalk it up to the seamier side of human nature.

In the late 1990s, advertisers wanted more-accurate ways to track click-through rates on their Internet advertisements. Cookies weren't doing the trick, and a cottage industry subsequently grew up that helped companies better monitor Web surfing patterns. Among other things, these companies discovered ways to download code onto computers, code that then popped up relevant advertisements when people opened Web pages.

Fair enough as far as that sort of thing goes. Unfortunately, greed quickly overcame common sense and an epidemic was unleashed that my CNET colleague Esther Dyson characterizes as "the scourge of the year."

She's got that right. At stake is a multibillion-dollar advertising industry that doesn't quite know what to do with the third-party shysters it inadvertently helped spawn.

At stake is a multibillion-dollar advertising industry that doesn't quite know what to do with the third-party shysters it inadvertently helped spawn.
Though the two often get lumped together, a fuzzy line separates adware from spyware. In the case of adware, an ad-generating program gets bundled with a free application, and people who want the app agree to download the whole package (at least theoretically; they're not always aware of the adware component). With spyware, code gets surreptitiously dumped onto people's computers, and there's not even the pretense of soliciting informed consent.

"If you want to be a publisher, long-term, you can't allow this to continue," says Ralph Terkowitz, a partner with ABS Capital Partners and the founder of The Washington Post's electronic publishing subsidiary.

So what is to be done?

The last thing the technology industry may want is an imposed solution. But when phony pop-ups disguise themselves as legitimate Web pages, few politicians will be able to resist going after so inviting a pinata. New York Attorney General Elliot Spitzer was first to file a lawsuit charging a company with being a source of adware and spyware programs that hinder online commerce and security. Unless adware companies find a way to better police themselves, other politicians inevitably will follow Spitzer's lead.

The clock is ticking, and the Spitzers of the world smell blood.
The adware guys can read the writing on the wall as easily as anyone, and they understand that their not-exactly-vigorous efforts to gain a potential downloader's consent contributed to the current mess. At a workshop sponsored by CNET's Download.com site, executives from four big adware companies, WhenU, Claria, DirectRevenue and 180solutions, acknowledged their critics and even extended an olive branch.

But they have a credibility problem that is going to be hard to shake. So it was that a guy sitting in front of me was in an unforgiving mood. Listening to their explanations of how the adware industry might clean things up, he shook his head and muttered, "slimeballs, slimeballs."

I don't know how fairly he represented the opinion of people in the audience, but this clearly was a "show me" crowd. To their credit, the companies agreed to participate knowing full well that they faced an unsympathetic gathering. At least there were no fistfights to report.

Maybe it was the start of a fruitful dialogue. But there's an awfully long way to go, and the public increasingly will demand action, not just words. Meanwhile the clock is ticking, and the Spitzers of the world smell blood.