Internet Heavyweights Back Adware Whitelist Effort

Several major Internet companies have lined up behind a plan to certify downloadable software as being free of unwanted spyware or other programs that aren’t disclosed to consumers seeking out downloadable software.

TRUSTe, a coalition of major e-commerce, Internet and payment companies, said its Trusted Download Program would launch in beta form early in 2006 with the backing of Yahoo, AOL, Computer Associates, CNET Networks, and Verizon.

Ratings System

The program established standards for what can and cannot be bundled into downloaded software and attempts to create “market incentives” for companies to comply by giving them ratings that consumers can use to find trustworthy software.

Borrowing from practices used to sort spammers from legitimate e-mail marketers, TRUSTe will publish a “whitelist” of companies that have received certification that their download policies include clear explanations of what a download contains and consumer consent for all of the installations. The hope is that with the major Internet firms agreeing to use the whitelist, software publishers will have an economic incentive to comply.

“With consumers downloading more and more software, it’s vital to give people real control over what they will allow on their computers,” said Fran Maier, executive director and president of TRUSTe.

The whitelist downloads will not necessarily be free of adware or programs tracking a user’s online movements. They would, however, be required to “prominently disclose” what types of advertising will be displayed, which personal information will be tracked, and how user settings may be altered. They also must pledge to obtain user opt-in consent for the download and include simple-to-follow uninstall instructions.

Big Backers

TRUSTe hopes to add to the list of firms agreeing to use its whitelist approach, but already has some of the biggest online companies behind its effort.

Yahoo Vice President Doug Leeds said the program will provide a means of screening software firms and of ensuring compliance over time, with the ability to offer downloads on portals such as AOL and Yahoo, on content and product review sites such as CNET — which is one of the largest destinations for direct downloads of freeware and test-ware programs — and ISPs such as Verizon, providing a strong market incentive to comply.

TRUSTe said technical support in drafting the guidelines came from Microsoft and policy input from the Center for Democracy and Technology.

Ari Schwartz, deputy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, said the program is one of several developments, including increased consumer vigilance and actions by regulatory agencies, that may indicate a shift in the balance of power online.

“I think we’ll look back at 2005 as the turning point in beginning to truly distinguish good actors from bad in the downloadable software space,” he said. “All of these developments are helping to tip the balance in favor of consumers in determining what software ends up on their computers.”

Affiliated Industries

This year also brought some key law enforcement efforts against spyware and related programs, with New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer winning a US$7.5 million settlement from Intermix over freeware downloads that installed hidden programs on users’ computers. And in early October, the Federal Trade Commission sued a software distributor for hiding programs that redirected Web users and served up ads inside its downloads.

But some in the marketing industry have lamented what they see as legitimate ad-generating or Web-use tracking programs being lumped in with true spyware, which installs itself on a user’s machine in order to obtain sensitive and private information.

Some in online marketing industry say many consumers do not mind having adware or tracking programs installed in exchange for free software, such as plug-ins meant to accelerate download speeds, constantly updated weather programs and other desktop accessories. The TRUSTe program allows for those situations where consumers are aware of what they’re getting.

Jupiter Research analyst Gary Stein said the program may be effective because it addresses the “real problem” of adware — third-party affiliates.

“I’ve long felt that the real problem with adware is affiliates. A lot of the ad-supported desktop app companies have been working toward cleaner communication of downloads, privacy protections and easy uninstalls,” Stein wrote in his blog. “But they also have affiliate programs, where anyone can sign up and be rewarded for getting the software onto consumer’s machines.”

The stakes are high, meanwhile. In July, the Pew Internet & American Life Project reported that consumers were beginning to change their online consumption behaviors based on spyware concerns, steering clear of downloading programs from sites they didn’t know or trust.

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