When it comes to blocking intrusive Internet software, Yahoo Inc.s new Anti-Spy gives adware the benefit of the doubt.
The beta version of the spyware-fighting toolbar add-on, which Yahoo released last week, doesnt default to detect adware—a category of software in which Yahoos paid search division has a financial stake.
Instead, users who want to identify adware in their systems via Anti-Spy must check a box each time they conduct a scan.
Among the programs the Sunnyvale, Calif., company classifies as adware are controversial ones from Claria Corp. (formerly The Gator Corp.) and WhenU.com Inc., two common targets of spyware critics who say the companies trick users into accepting unwanted downloads and flood machines with pop-up ads.
With Claria, best known for its Gator eWallet application, Yahoo is also a business partner. Claria, based in Redwood City, Calif., delivers pop-up and other forms of advertising from its GAIN ad network through software downloaded onto users machines.
Yahoos Overture division, a leading provider of paid search listings, contributed 31 percent of Clarias 2003 revenues through a partnership in which it supplies paid listings to Clarias SearchScout service, according to Clarias April S-1 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
SearchScout is triggered when a user visits a Web search engine and displays a pop-under window with an alternative set of paid search results. Overture reached an agreement with Claria in March 2003 before it was acquired by Yahoo, the filing states. It pays Claria a percentage of the ad revenue generated when users click on the paid listings.
Dave Methvin, chief technology officer at PC Pitstop LLC, said he is concerned with Yahoos contradiction in offering a spyware-fighting tool while also aligning with one of the biggest purveyors of adware programs.
PC Pitstop, a Dakota Dunes, S.D., company that runs a Web site for PC diagnostics, last year settled a libel lawsuit filed by Claria over its public criticism of Claria and its distribution methods.
“Its great that theyre giving away a free anti-spyware toolbar,” Methvin said of Yahoo. “I just wish that they wouldnt turn around and, with the other hand, hand Gator one-third of its revenue.”
For their part, Yahoo officials said Tuesday that the distinction between the qualities of spyware and adware is determined by the third-party vendor providing the technology, PestPatrol Inc.
Yahoo spokeswoman Stephanie Ichinose said the toolbar beta integrates PestPatrols software but did not know whether PestPatrols own application also requires users to specifically select adware for detection.
“What this is all about is providing the users with visibility into their computer and to help them manage it as they see appropriate,” she said.
As far as Overtures relationship with Claria, she said Overture screens its distribution partners to make sure they gain user permission before downloading software.
She declined to comment on whether Yahoo would consider terminating the Claria agreement.
To be sure, the definitions of spyware and adware are cloudy. Adware programs often are included as part of a software bundle or through drive-by downloads, where an ActiveX control pops up when a user visits a site and asks whether to accept a download, Methvin said.
Adware companies such as Claria say they receive user permission to download their software, but critics say the companies often use confusing methods that leave users unaware of what they are downloading.
On its Web site, PestPatrol does categorize software from Claria as adware. But it also listed GAIN, as of Tuesday, as one of the most commonly eliminated spyware pests. PestPatrol officials could not be immediately reached for comment Tuesday.
Methvin and Ben Edelman, a Harvard University student and vocal spyware critic, both said PestPatrol scans for spyware as well as adware by default.
In a test of PestPatrols free, online scanning tool, eWEEK.com confirmed that it does detect the presence of Clarias GAIN software automatically.
To Edelman, Yahoos decision not to include adware by default in its Anti-Spy beta is a mistake. Edelman, who has served as an expert witness in lawsuits against Claria, considers software from Claria and New York-based WhenU.com to be spyware because of their distribution methods and practices.
Last month, Edelman raised concerns about WhenU.coms use of a method called cloaking to serve search engines different content than site visitors to gain a higher position for its Web sites. That led to Google Inc. and Yahoo removing WhenU.com sites from search results, according to published reports.
As of Tuesday, Google still was not returning results for WhenU.com, but Yahoo was returning WhenU.coms home page as the top result for the query “WhenU.”
Yahoo likely has found itself in a contradictory position of both being a Web publisher whose own ads could be cannibalized from adware, while also benefiting from its distribution of Overture paid listings through Claria, Edelman said.
“They do need to pick a side,” Edelman said of Yahoo. “Its not clear if Yahoo is on the side of the user or the advertisers.”