Adware vendor Hotbar.com Inc. is feeling the heat this week over its pesky adware programs and spotty adherence to online privacy rules, eWEEK has learned.
Last week, TRUSTe, the online privacy group, revoked Hotbar.coms right to display that organizations seal of approval. On Tuesday, anti-virus giant Symantec Corp. joined the fray, asking the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California to rule on its right to detect and remove certain Hotbar programs as unwanted adware.
Hotbar, of New York, was not immediately available to comment.
Hotbar.com distributes a variety of adware, which tracks users online behavior in exchange for such digital gewgaws as Web browser toolbars with changeable "skins," screensaver programs and instant messaging emoticons.
The company has been criticized by anti-spyware researchers in the past for dubious installation practices, such as using spam e-mail or pop-up advertisements to push packages of its adware applications onto users systems, often with scant notice to users about what is being installed.
Hotbar.com fiercely defends its business practices, and sent a cease-and-desist letter to Sunbelt Software Inc., an anti-spyware software vendor, in May, calling on that company to stop labeling its wares "adware," according to a copy of the letter posted on Sunbelts Web site.
In the letter, Hotbar claims that its adware provides a valuable service to Web surfers, users of Microsofts Outlook program and online shoppers. Moreover, the company alleges that competing anti-spyware programs by Microsoft Corp., Lavasoft Inc., McAfee Inc. and others dont flag Hotbars programs.
The Symantec lawsuit may be an effort to avoid Sunbelts fate. Symantec is not seeking damages, "but simply a ruling from the court that we have a right to detect such programs," spokesperson Genevieve Haldeman told eWEEK in an e-mail message.
While it fights Sunbelt and Symantec in court over the definition of "adware," Hotbar also found itself on the defensive with online privacy group TRUSTe over the improper display of the TRUSTe program seal on Hotbars Web page.
Like other companies, Hotbar displays the TRUSTe logo on its Web page, indicating it adheres to that groups privacy guidelines. But TRUSTe now claims that Hotbar violated its guidelines by displaying the TRUSTe logo on a page that downloads software onto visitors computers.
TRUSTe forbade that practice after the organizations members became concerned that displaying the TRUSTe seal on software download pages would be perceived as an endorsement of the software being downloaded—a service that TRUSTe does not provide, according to executive director Fran Meier, executive director at TRUSTe.
TRUSTe informed Hotbar.com recently that its status had been changed to "not verified" pending changes in the Web page regarding the display of the TRUSTe Seal.
Hotbar has since removed the seal from its download page but still displays it on its home page, a violation of TRUSTes rules, Meier said.
Clicking on the TRUSTe seal displays a page indicating that Hotbar is not verified and its display of the seal is "unlawful and violates a TRUSTe trademark."
Meier said that TRUSTe periodically reviews the sites of organizations that display its seal and acts quickly to revoke certification from companies that violate its guidelines.
However, Meier admits that her group does not evaluate downloads from Web sites. Sites like Hotbar could technically comply with TRUSTes online privacy guidelines and still distribute adware and spyware programs.
TRUSTe is strategically exploring the possibility of looking at software downloads in addition to how Web sites handle sensitive information provided by Web surfers.
Behind the legal wrangling is mounting criticism as many ordinary computer users struggle to free their computers from serial adware and spyware infections.
A number of anti-spyware bills are competing on Capitol Hill, and experts say that Congress is likely to pass some kind of legislation outlawing certain installation and user monitoring practices later this year.
More recently, a group of anti-spyware vendors joined forces with the Center for Democracy and Technology and other public interest groups to form the Anti-Spyware Coalition, which will develop industry standard definitions of such terms as "adware" and "spyware," which are often conflated.