When antivirus firm Avira began warning its users that software installed from download site Freemium.com came bundled with “potentially unwanted applications,” the site demanded that the security firm stop blocking its downloads.
Yet Freemium.com’s practice of bundling other programs violated Avira’s code of conduct for applications, so the security company continued to warn its customers and continued blocking the site’s downloads. Companies that surreptitiously install applications for money are pushing the boundaries of ethics and cause consumers to mistrust software firms, Travis Witteveen, CEO of Avira GmbH, told eWEEK.
“They broke all reasonable levels of what can be considered acceptable behavior,” Witteveen said. “They are making a ton of money, but they are doing it in a way that the entire software industry is suffering.”
While Freemium.com responded by filing an injunction, a German court sided with the antivirus firm in late June, allowing it to continue to classify the slyly downloaded programs as potentially unwanted, according to Avira.
The judgment is one of the latest signs that consumers and the legal system are pushing back against increasing efforts by publishers, manufacturers and software developers to get paid for loading up users’ systems with questionable software, add-ons and toolbars, often referred to by frustrated consumers as “crapware” or “bloatware.” Companies that attempt to make money by surreptitiously installing software are facing increasing consumer wrath.
“This ruling establishes a major legal milestone in the fight against misleading consumers into unintentionally installing unwanted software onto their computers,” Witteveen said in a statement at the time. “We believe in ‘freemium’ and advertising-supported business models; however, they must remain transparent and ethical in their implementation.”
Freemium.com is not the only site to install unwanted software for cash. In a survey of installed behavior with CNET’s Download.com, consumer technology site HowToGeek found that installing the top-10 downloads from the site resulted in a bevy of unwanted software, being installed on the user’s system.
“There are also no safe freeware download sites … it isn’t just CNET Downloads that is doing the bundling, it’s EVERYBODY,” the review stated. “The freeware authors are bundling crapware, and then lousy download sources are bundling even more on top of it. It’s a cavalcade of crapware.”
Earlier this year, Chinese PC maker Lenovo faced outrage when consumers learned that the company had begun installing an adware program, known as Superfish on some of its PCs. In May, Slashdot’s developer site Sourceforge had to defend itself after the site began wrapping downloads of “abandoned” software projects in installers that would offer to install paid products including, ironically, the antivirus software Norton, made by Symantec.
Legal Battles Could Trim Down Bloatware
Most recently, a Chinese consumer group, the Shanghai Consumer Council, filed lawsuits against mobile-device makers Samsung and Oppo for selling smartphones pre-loaded with hard-to-remove, if not impossible-to-remove, bloatware.
The consumer outcry and legal losses—Freemium.com was reportedly ordered to pay 500,000 Euro—have caused some companies to rethink their strategies. Lenovo, for example, backed off using Superfish, if not bloatware, in general, while Samsung has changed its strategy, according to Wei Shi, analyst with the global wireless practice at Strategy Analytics, a market research firm.
“Samsung has undergone a directional change over the last year in their approach to preloading their own apps, as part of overhauling change in their content and service strategy,” he said. “Mobile content strategy is primarily about differentiating their devices from competitors, creating sticky services to keep users within the Samsung ecosystem, but also to maintain the premium application service provider.”
Yet many other companies continue and it’s business as usual. For example, Malwarebytes, a security firm that specializes in software that removes malware and adware, gets anywhere from five to 10 cease-and-desist letters a week from lawyers representing the companies that install what many consider potentially unwanted applications. Yet about 60 percent of the threats the company’s software removes from consumers’ systems are related to bundleware, Malwarebytes CEO Marcin Kleczynski told eWEEK.
“You have to make a decision whether you are going to protect your user or not,” he said. “At some point, we have to make the call with regards to what is good software and what is not.”
Security companies, such as Malwarebytes and Avira, have created guidelines to inform software developers and their own analysts as to what should be considered a potentially unwanted application. Avira’s guidelines, for example, ask whether the software cannot be uninstalled by normal users, lacks a truthful description or changes browser settings without the user’s explicit permission.
Yet even with the recent legal losses, consumer outcry and outreach by security firms, the bundleware business is just too lucrative to die quickly, Avira’s Witteveen said.
“This is not going to slow down for a while,” he said. “There is way too much money.”