Two prominent advertising software vendors said on Wednesday that they would support a new registration program for consumer downloadable software programs that is backed by Yahoo Inc., America Online Inc. and others.
Representatives from 180 Solutions Inc. and Direct Revenue Inc. said their companies would agree to support the Trusted Download Program and begin making changes to their software programs to comply with it.
However, questions remain about the scope of the program and about enforcement, those involved with it say.
The new program was announced Wednesday by TrustE, the nonprofit online privacy group, along with America Online Inc., Yahoo Inc., CNET Networks Inc., Verizon Communications Inc. and Computer Associates International Inc., in conjunction with the Federal Trade Commission and the Center for Democracy and Technology.
TrustE will require advertising software vendors to disclose the kinds of advertising that will be displayed using their software and the kinds of personal information they will track.
Consumers must also be informed about any configuration settings that will be changed by the software and given an easy way to remove any advertising software, according to TrustE. Most importantly, advertising software vendors must move their customers to certified software and receive user consent to do so.
Products that comply with the program will be listed on a published “white list” of certified applications that can be used by companies like Yahoo and AOL to make business decisions about advertising, partnering or distribution, TrustE said.
“We totally support the program. We think its a step forward,” said Andrew Reiskind, chief privacy officer at Direct Revenue Inc.
Direct Revenue said it plans to get its adware certified under the program and will have to make some “tweaks” to do so. The company has attempted to contact TrustE to figure out exactly what changes to make.
“I think the proposal is in beta stage. We need to feel some things out to see how each adware company approaches them,” he said.
At 180 Solutions Inc., spokesperson Sean Sundwall called the Trusted Download program a “landmark.”
“This changes everything. Weve been clamoring for the rules of the game for years now,” he said.
While some of the TrustE guidelines are more restrictive than 180 would like, the company plans to comply with them by the time the program goes live, he said.
“The adware industry has more to prove. Some of these restrictions are more prescriptive, but were fine with them,” he said.
180 will need to change its software to indicate, in each pop-up ad, where the advertising software thats displaying the ad came from, he said. The link will remind consumers that they consented to install the software—if, in fact, they did so. “Everyone complains that [adware] is unwanted software. Maybe thats true in some instances, but in many cases its just forgotten software, not unwanted,” he said.
Advertising software companies like 180, Direct Revenue and Claria Corp. are hoping the TrustE program takes the “zealotry” out of the debate about adware and provides cover for adware vendors, as well as advertisers and Web publishers who want to do business through the companies, he said.
Why Microsoft and Google
Like Direct Revenue, 180 claims that it already meets many of the TrustE requirements as a result of changes in the last year.
However, qualifying for the Trusted Download white list may not be as easy as the adware companies are letting on, said Andrew Weinstein, a spokesperson for AOL, which helped draft the new guidelines.
In particular, the TrustE requirement that companies get user opt-in before moving customers from a blacklisted application to a certified adware program will bring huge changes, he said.
“I dont think theres an adware company out there that doesnt get some or even a vast majority of its install base through irresponsible methods,” Weinstein said.
If those companies have to properly disclose their presence to customers and get their agreement to upgrade to a TrustE certified program, many of those users may choose to get rid of the program, rather than upgrade, Weinstein said.
“Its going to change practices and, over time, youll …clean up the user base,” he said.
However, leading players Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp. did not sign off on Wednesdays announcement, even though both companies participated in drafting the guidelines.
In a statement, Google said it supported the effort to combat spyware, but that the TrustE guidelines lacked teeth in some areas.
“We are very supportive of efforts to combat spyware. We offered input for this proposal and evaluated it, but we decided not to participate. We think these are positive steps to address this issue, but we would have liked some pieces of the initiative to be stronger,” the company said in a statement.
Microsoft said in a statement that it will re-evaluate participation in the Trusted Download program once the beta cycle has been completed.
“We remain committed to working with the industry and groups like TrustE to collectively help protect our mutual customers from spyware,” the company said.
The lack of backing from Google and Microsoft, despite early participation in the effort, prompted speculation that the TrustE guidelines were released before they were fully baked.
There are also questions about whether TrustE will be able to adequately enforce the new certification program.
The group is universally praised for its impartiality and efforts to improve privacy practices online, but TrustE has been criticized in the past for lax monitoring of spyware sites.
TrustE did not respond to phone and e-mail requests for an interview in time for this story.
Participants in the Trusted Download program, including AOL and Yahoo, will give TrustE additional resources to manage the Trusted Download program. However, TrustE will still rely, in part, on complaints from third parties to monitor compliance, Weinstein said.
The “free flow of information” online and all the “eyeballs” tracking adware companies should spot infractions by white-listed companies quickly. Also, he said, above-board companies will have a powerful incentive to comply with the TrustE guidelines: fear of losing advertising revenue by falling off the TrustE white list.
AOL has its own standards for adware and spyware companies and wont replace those with the TrustE standards, Weinstein said.
“[Trusted Downloads] just give us additional information. It may change our behavior [regarding] companies that arent on the white list—we might look at what they did to get off the [white list] and incorporate that into decisions about whether to do business with them,” he said.
The real advantage of the new certification program is that it draws a clear line between “good guys” and “bad guys” in the adware world, Weinstein said.
“The real win is getting the 90 percent of bad actors out of the legitimate business. With no standard, those 90 percent of bad actors are taking money from the same people as the decent companies,” he said.