Maybe They Should Call It MS Pro-Spyware

Opinion: Alternatively, Microsoft could try telling customers what they need to know.

Theres a quick way for Microsoft to extract itself from the controversy over its anti-spyware program and its rumored plan to buy Claria, the big spyware company. I can also think of a slow way, but the quick one is more fun.

Here goes: Just change the name of the software from Microsoft Anti-Spyware to Microsoft Pro-Spyware, since that seems to be where the company is headed. How else to explain Microsofts willingness to "upgrade" several pieces of spyware from a "remove" recommendation to "ignore," but its unwillingness to explain why the action was taken?

In this spirit, Microsoft might instead change the name of its software to Microsoft Spyware, which would be especially appropriate should Microsoft buy Claria.

There may be a better course, but its slower. And it would require some heads-up thinking in Redmond.

This plan requires Microsoft to improve—that is become more publicly accountable for—its behavior. Microsoft expects customers to give it their trust, but wont provide the information necessary to show that that trust is well placed.

Microsoft owes its customers very specific information about why it considers a particular piece of software to be spyware. Then, customers need to be fully informed when Microsoft changes its recommendations. Microsoft should not make any recommendation besides "delete" unless its willing to provide a report card on each piece of spyware so that customers can decide for themselves what action to take.

In the current case, Microsoft customers deserve to know why several pieces of spyware were recently changed from "remove" to "ignore." Have the companies responsible for this spyware changed their behavior? And, if so, how? Or has Microsoft changed its criteria? Microsoft needs to explain.

/zimages/6/28571.gifRead more here about industry reaction to Microsofts explanation of the change in treatment of Clarias products.

Customers need an intelligent way to make decisions about what spyware should be removed and whether spyware might be associated with software they want to keep. In order to do this, Microsoft needs to provide very specific information about the dangers, effects and "benefits" associated with particular spyware applications.

Microsoft is welcome to make a recommendation as to what action a user should take when confronted by particular pieces of spyware. But it should do this only after it provides customers with the information necessary to make an intelligent decision.

Microsoft already makes too many decisions for its customers, but where spyware is concerned, the default answer should always be "remove."

Knowing Microsoft as I do, it is my opinion that its anti-spyware developers are as independent as their boss, Mike Nash, says they are. That is, they havent been pressured by the supposed Claria deal.

There are entire business units at Microsoft that seem, at least occasionally, to take great pleasure in thumbing their noses at everyone else, and anti-spyware seems to be one of them. Control at Microsoft is too decentralized for any one person, save Bill, Steve or a few of those who report directly, to have ordered a change in Clarias status and made it stick.

/zimages/6/28571.gifClick here to read more about rumors that Microsoft plans to acquire adware vendor Claria.

The more we know about the situation, the more it appears that Claria and several other pieces of spyware were "upgraded" back in March. That doesnt sound like a conspiracy, but it does sound like Microsoft might be trying to change the definition of spyware.

It is quite possible that Microsoft wants to "rehabilitate" spyware so it can become a legitimate way for the company itself to distribute advertising-supported software. Microsoft has already said it plans to move toward services and subscriptions for revenue, and one way for customers to pay for those services would be to view advertising.

Make such an agreement more explicit and software could be funded in the same manner as commercial television and radio. And if you dont like the ads, then buy the subscription. I already do that with several online services.

I can see the ad now: "Microsoft Spyware is GOOD for you!" Maybe the secret of Office 12 will be ad support rather than an upgrade price.

As for the immediate situation, Microsofts public letter has only managed to make things worse.

Instead of addressing the entire issue, Microsofts letter is so narrowly written as to be almost funny. It seems specific, but isnt. It tries to explain, but doesnt quite manage to. The letter is a classic example of too little, too late.

If Microsoft doesnt want to become known as being "pro" spyware, the company needs to fully explain itself and make the necessary changes in its software, policies and procedures so customers can have full confidence in its recommendations.

Microsoft wants our trust, but must do more to earn it.

Contributing editor David Coursey has spent two decades writing about hardware, software and communications for business customers. He can be reached at

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