"Spyware and adware are more than an annoyance," Spitzer said in a statement Thursday. "These fraudulent programs foul machines, undermine productivity and in many cases frustrate consumers efforts to remove them from their computers."
The attorneys office said Los Angeles-based Intermix Media Inc. offered free software downloads such as screensavers and toolbars, but along with those downloads, secretly installed ad-delivery programs to "its unsuspecting users."
The office is seeking heavy penalties against Intermix. It hopes to prohibit Intermix from installing any advertising, ad-serving, redirecting or toolbar programs, and to make the company provide all records of prior installation of such programs, account for all revenues derived from the distribution of such programs, and pay $500 for each instance of a "deceptive or unlawful practice."
Spyware and adware industry watchers applauded Spitzers move.
"This is hugely important because the New York attorney general is going after an adware firm not for stealth installs, but for run-of-the-mill, sleazy installation practices that are quite common with adware firms," said Eric Howes, a spyware researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
He said those include installation and uninstallation practices, system reconfiguration and various advertising practices that attempt to deceive users.
"We all cheered when we saw the story," said Jim Slaby, a senior analyst at The Yankee Group in Boston. "Like him or hate him, [Spitzer is] one of us. Any kind of action and help that enterprises get in battling spyware is welcome."
For its part, Intermix denied wrongdoing in a statement released Thursday.
"Intermix does not promote or condone spyware, and remains committed to putting this legacy issue behind it as soon as practicable," Christopher Lipp, senior vice president and general counsel at Intermix, said in the statement. "Many of the practices being challenged were instituted under prior leadership, and Intermix has been voluntarily and proactively improving these applications for some time."
The company argued that the "redirect" and "toolbar" applications under challenge are similar to those marketed by other major Internet companies. Such applications let users conduct searches without going to a specific Web site, and sometimes include pop-up blocking software.
Intermixs redirect application, meanwhile, takes effect only when a user misspells a Web site name or a site cannot be found. Intermix said it quit distributing KeenValue, one of the ad-serving applications cited by the attorney general, in 2003. Earlier this month, the company also ceased distribution of its redirect and toolbar applications pending the ongoing investigation by the attorney general.