A high-profile consumer advocacy group has asked the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) to pull the plug on the "illegal and deceptive practices" used by adware vendor 180Solutions Inc. to install unwanted software on millions of computers.
A complaint from the nonprofit CDT (Center for Democracy & Technology) accused 180Solutions of using a complicated web of affiliate partnerships to deliberately trick consumers into downloading and installing intrusive adware programs.
The group wants the FTC to slap 180Solutions with hefty fines and block the company and its affiliates from future use of the deceptive and unfair installation of software.
In a 91-page complaint (PDF file), the CDT said it spent the last two years investigating complaints that 180Solutions was turning a blind eye to the installation of its adware through security exploits, botnets and instant messaging worm attacks.
"We are urging the FTC to use all the tools at its disposal to bring these practices to a halt, since 180Solutions has repeatedly failed to adequately police its own distribution network," the CDT said in a statement issued Jan. 23.
Officials at 180Solutions did not respond to eWEEK requests for comment.
The CDT, which also runs the Anti-Spyware Coalition, said 180Solutions continued to use the shady tactics even after being warned by technology experts, privacy advocates and its own auditors that its practices were unethical, and in several cases, illegal.
180Solutions, which distributes advertising through free software programs like 180search Assistant and Zango, is no stranger to controversy. The company is already facing a class action lawsuit over the alleged installation of adware through security vulnerabilities and for making the programs virtually impossible for computer users to remove.
Ben Edelman, a harsh critic of the adware/spyware sector, has published evidence of nonconsensual installations of 180solutions through security exploits.
Edelmans work was featured in the CDT complaint, which lists several instances of the companys software being installed in conjunction with other noxious programs via security exploits.
Director of malware research at anti-spyware vendor Sunbelt Software Eric Howes is not at all surprised by the CDT complaint.
"My sense is that the CDT is fed up with the runaround they were getting from 180Solutions. It has finally sunk in that these guys are using a business model that is fundamentally corrupt," Howes said in an interview with eWEEK.
"It has to change and its clear it wont change until someone puts a gun to their head and forces them to change," Howes added.
After reading the massive complaint, Howes said it was clear that the CDT gave 180Solutions ample time to clean up its act.
"The stunning thing to me is that 180Solutions has been well aware of rampant problems with distributors and they sat back and allowed it to go on."
He said 180Solutions "stubbornly refused" to make the necessary changes to a business model that rewards criminal activity.
The company typically pays per-installation affiliate fees to third parties but, despite the companys public statements that third-party affiliates are being policed, Howes said 180Solutions software are still being distributed via botnets and IM worms.
Ari Schwartz, deputy director at the CDT, said 180Solutions and its affiliates have caused "immeasurable harm" to individual Internet users and to the Internet itself.
"This companys brazen distribution practices saddle innocent Internet users with intrusive software that they neither want nor need and contribute to a general sense of wariness and distrust that threatens to stifle the growth of the medium," he added.
He said the CDT alerted 180Solutions about its investigations and warned the company that several of its affiliations were using deceptive installation tactics.<//P>
"180Solutions was initially cooperative, halting certain practices, and even going so far as to file lawsuits against some affiliates," said Schwartz.
"However, throughout that period, CDT received a nearly continuous stream of new complaints about 180Solutions and its affiliates.
"After more than two years of investigation and discussion, CDT concluded that 180Solutions underlying business model is fundamentally flawed, and that until it is changed, consumers will continue to become unwitting victims of its deceptive software installations," Schwartz said.
He said the CDT was disappointed that it wasnt able to convince 180Solutions to clean up its practices. "[We] would always prefer to resolve issues of this sort through dialogue and voluntary improvements, but in this case we tried and were unable to reach an agreement that protects consumers."
In addition to the broad "pattern of practice" complaint filed today, CDT also joined with the Technology Law & Public Policy Clinic at the University of Washington School of Law to file a separate complaint targeting 180Solutions ongoing relationship with a specific affiliate, CJB.NET.