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RealPlayer Labeled As 'Badware'

StopBadware.org came to the designation after noting one version inadequately discloses advertising behaviors, while another installs additional applications without notifying the user.

Two versions of RealNetworks' RealPlayer media software have been designed "badware" by StopBadware.org, an organization opposed to abusive software.

"Badware" describes software that fails to respect user choice. Malware, deceptive adware, and spyware qualify as badware, though those terms imply an illegal or unconscionable level of deception on the part of the software creator. This is arguably distinct from the white lies and exaggerations that are the mainstay of marketing.

StopBadware claims that RealPlayer version 10.5 inadequately discloses "advertising behaviors" and that RealPlayer version 11, the most current version of the software, installs an additional application, the Rhapsody Player Engine, without clearly notifying the user.

Maxim Weinstein, manager of StopBadWare, said that RealNetworks' software came to the group's attention because of a user's complaint. He said the user visited a Web site, saw a notice that he needed a plug-in to view some content, and then agreed to install the plug-in. What the user got, he said, was full version of RealPlayer 10.5. "Within a few minutes, there were ads popping up from his system tray," Weinstein said.

"The advertising software bundled with RealPlayer is misleadingly called a 'message center,' and is described incompletely and inconspicuously in the EULA [End User License Agreement] as software designed to provide useful software updates," StopBadware says in a statement issued Thursday. "When RealPlayer 10.5 is installed, the advertising features of this 'message center' are enabled by default for users who choose not to register their personal information with RealNetworks after the software is installed."

The group also objects to RealPlayer 11 for failing to disclose that it's installing the Rhapsody Player Engine and for failing to remove it when the user uninstalls RealPlayer 11.

A spokesman for RealNetworks disagreed with the group's assessment of the company's software.

"We're really transparent about what we're installing on someone's machine," he said. At the same time, he noted that RealPlayer 11 addresses some of the issues StopBadware has with RealPlayer 10.5 because it requires the user to opt-in to advertising rather than opt-out. He also said that RealPlayer 11's failure to uninstall the Rhapsody Player Engine will be addressed in a future update.

Labeling RealNetworks' software as badware may prove to be little more than a public relations challenge for the company. The designation appears unlikely to lead to any sort of blacklisting or blocking of RealPlayer. Weinstein said he didn't know of any computer security company that used the organization's findings to inform its products.

"A big part of our motivation is to really encourage software producers to really, actively inform users of the effects of the decisions they make when installing their software," he said.

StopBadware is backed by Harvard and Oxford universities, as well as Google, Lenovo, PayPal, and VeriSign.

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