ISPs Plan to Offer Spyware Detection Programs

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EarthLink joined AOL and MSN yesterday in declaring war on so-called spyware programs. The ISP said it would make available to its 5 million subscribers software to help identify and remove programs unwittingly on their computers that could track their browsing activity, steal personal information or serve pop-up ads.


The free software, provided through Webroot, scans computers and produces an audit report of programs residing on the machine. The report can find hidden programs that track a user's Web browsing activity, including desktop advertising programs such as those made by WhenU.com and Claria. Users disable the programs separately.


"It's simply a tool we're giving to consumers to let them know what's on their machine," EarthLink spokesman Jerry Grasso said. "They will make the next step in deciding whether to remove an adware program."


As Internet service providers battle for subscribers, they have rolled out features that address Web annoyances, from spam to pop-up ads. The anti-spyware push is the latest front. America Online plans to provide its users with such software. Microsoft's new version of its MSN service also includes spyware detection capabilities.


Claria and WhenU deny that their ad-supported software is spyware, though programs like EarthLink's SpyAudit would tag it as potential spyware. Computer users typically download programs like WhenU and Claria's Gator along with free software, such as file-sharing programs and screensavers. The software occasionally serves pop-up ads tied to a user's browsing activity. Both companies deny collecting any personally identifiable information on its users and cite lengthy disclosures about the nature of the software when users download it.


Avi Naider, chief executive of WhenU, said such spyware detection services were an inevitable reaction to bad business practices by some other desktop advertising companies. He welcomed closer scrutiny of such programs.


"It would be very helpful to winnow out some of the low end of the market that does not protect consumer privacy and provide consumer value like WhenU does," he said.


According to figures from Claria and WhenU, their installation base reaches tens of millions. Claria claims Gator is installed on 38 million computers; WhenU's SaveNow software is on 25 million to 30 million.


Adware has long been controversial, as Web sites and publishers have sued both companies for possible trademark and copyright infringement. A key contention in the cases has been that adware users are unaware the software is on their machines and believe the pop-up ads it generates, despite their labeling from WhenU or Gator, come from the Web site.


Court decisions have been mixed. Most recently, a federal judge in Manhattan issued a preliminary injunction against WhenU in a case brought by 1-800 Contacts. U.S. District Court Judge Deborah Betts said that WhenU's ads could easily confuse users into thinking they come from the Web site they are visiting. The injunction was a setback for WhenU after a string of legal victories in different courts.


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