Give Yahoo a Break on This Adware Controversy

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2004-06-02 Print this article Print

A beta of the company's new anti-spam toolbar add-on doesn't scan for adware by default, but some people will be happy with this setting, Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer writes.

Spyware is definitely evil stuff. Most of the people who write it should be in jail. And lucky for us, there are lots of great products, some of them free, for finding spyware that may have made its way onto your system. "Adware" is another matter. Im not sure about "evil," but I dont like it, and much of it is misleading and immoral. The most famous adware out there, Gator eWallet from Claria, is not as popular as it is because people deliberately install it. Claria strikes deals with other companies to distribute eWallet along with their own programs. Im sure that to most users, its just another series of "next" buttons to press in the install wizard and yeah, sure, they agree to the agreement. In exchange, they get "customized" advertisements.

So, adware is somewhat sleazy, but its on a whole different moral level than spyware, which actually spies on you, or perhaps worse. And in fact, there are people who want to run adware.
I think theyre morons, but I have, for example, run into users who really like those browser toolbars that come with adware built in. In some cases, the program will fail if you remove the adware.

I think this is part of what Yahoo was thinking when it set the spyware scanner in the beta version of its new browser toolbar not to scan for adware by default. Click here to read more about Yahoo giving some adware a second chance in its new anti-spam toolbar add-on. The scanner is based on technology from PestPatrol, so I asked Roger Thompson, the companys vice president of product development, for his take on the situation. Yahoo built the controversial interface, not PestPatrol, but he said he thought Yahoo was just being conservative, and Im inclined to agree with him.

In reporting on the decision not to include adware by default in the scan, we observed that Yahoo has some business relationships that cast a suspicious eye on this decision. Yahoo owns Overture, which sells ads on Clarias advertising network, specifically on its SearchScout service, according to Clarias April S-1 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Could Yahoo be going soft on adware out of deference to its indirect business partner?

I tested the actual toolbar myself. Take a look at the nearby screen shot of the interface, as it tells the whole story (click on the button to see the whole window): Yahoo Anti-Spy doesnt scan for adware by default, but it couldnt have made the option to do so more obvious. Nobody could miss that checkbox.

Bear in mind that the program is in beta, too. The kinds of people who test beta software and report back are sure to run other scanners and complain about this. But I bet there are people who will be happy with this setting. Its entirely possible that the number of false positives they will get because of that checkbox is much less than with the standard PestPatrol, which does scan for adware by default.

For insights on security coverage around the Web, check out Security Center Editor Larry Seltzers Weblog. Its a shame that adware and spyware get associated so closely by being scanned for by the same products. Theyre not the same problems. But like other types of malware, they do need to be scanned for, and so I expect that in the long term, the separate market for spyware/adware scanners will go away. These functions should be part of the same software that scans for viruses, Trojan horses, etc.

In the meantime, if you like the other features in the Yahoo Toolbar, Anti-Spy looks like another good reason to get it. PestPatrol is a good product, and a free version of it is nothing to sneeze at. And if you want to scan for adware, itll only cost you one more nearby click.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983. Check out eWEEK.coms Security Center at for the latest security news, reviews and analysis.

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Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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