Next Anti-Spyware Group Pushes for Standards

The newly formed Anti-Spyware Coalition, run by the Center for Democracy and Technology, aims to develop definitions for "spyware" and "adware," and to advocate industry best practices.

A group of anti-spyware software makers and public-interest groups is forming a new coalition to define spyware, according to an executive at the Center for Democracy and Technology, which is running the coalition.

The Anti-Spyware Coalition, which met for the first time last week, includes leading anti-spyware vendors Aluria Software LLC, Computer Associates International Inc. and Webroot Software Inc.

The group will develop standard definitions for loosely applied terms such as "spyware" and "adware," and will advocate industry best practices for online marketers and advertisers, according to Ari Schwartz, associate director at the CDT (Center for Democracy and Technology).

But an executive at one leading anti-spyware firm warned that the new call for standards could benefit spyware and adware vendors, who will be able to skirt proscribed language and behaviors while still infecting machines with their wares.

Spyware generally describes a kind of tracking software that secretly gathers information about a computer user. Adware is a term that describes software used to display advertisements in pop-up windows or Web banners. But adware often tracks online behavior as well and transmits that back to third parties.

However, considerable confusion exists between the two types of programs, which often share many features. Leading anti-spyware vendors, including Computer Associates and Sunbelt Software Inc., have faced legal action from spyware and adware vendors that flag their products during spyware scans.

"A lot of times its one of those you know it when you see it things, but that leads to a lot of uncertainty," Schwartz said.

In March, anti-spyware vendor CA got into hot water with consumers and anti-spyware advocates when it temporarily removed detection for adware from online marketing company Claria Corp. pending an appeal by that vendor. The company later restored its detection of Claria products.

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The group plans to release a document at the end of the summer that will include definitions of spyware and adware, and plans to allow the public to comment on the document, he said.

Consumer education is also a key goal for the new coalition, Schwartz said.

"If we start to have agreement and successes, then consumer groups can start working with anti-spyware companies to improve the way anti-spyware software works," he said.

But at least one anti-spyware executive warned that clear definitions of spyware and adware will benefit the companies that distribute that software.

"Spyware [and] adware vendors dont like to be listed in anti-spyware product databases. It means end users uninstall their stuff. … If there is some new standard that has been agreed to, all they have to do is simply point to the standard. It gives them a way out," Alex Eckelberry, president of Sunbelt, said in an e-mail to eWEEK.

Sunbelt has declined to join the new coalition, Eckelberry said.

Anti-spyware coalitions have a checkered past. An earlier organization, COAST (the Consortium of Anti-Spyware Technology Vendors), dissolved when 180 Solutions, an online advertiser whose practices are routinely criticized in anti-spyware circles, was admitted to the group, forcing other members to walk out earlier this year.

The new coalition hopes to avoid a similar fate by rigorously vetting new members and by requiring the full approval of all current members before any new member is admitted, Schwartz said.

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