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Yahoo, AOL, Others Stand Up Against Adware

A group of Internet heavyweights, including Yahoo and AOL, are backing a plan that would certify software as adware and spyware free in an attempt to stymie the flood of unwanted software plaguing users' computers.

Gregg Keizer

November 16, 2005

4 Min Read

A group of Internet heavyweights, including Yahoo and AOL, are backing a plan that would certify software as adware and spyware free in an attempt to stymie the flood of unwanted software plaguing users' computers.

Dubbed the Truste Download Program and administered by the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit Truste, it essentially would be a white list of voluntarily-submitted software that meets a number of anti-adware, anti-spyware criteria. The companies sponsoring the plan -- Yahoo!, America Online, Computer Associates, CNET Networks (which hosts the popular Download.com site) and Verizon -- would only distribute or advertise on programs on the white list.

Among the criteria software will have to meet, said Truste in its lengthy explanation of the program, are easy uninstallation, clear consumer consent before downloading, and disclosure of any affiliate relationships. A host of adware/spyware-like practices and traits are also banned, including taking control of a PC, tracking keystrokes, and modifying computer settings.

Truste will also closely monitor certified software to make sure that adware or spyware isn't slipped into the mix after approval's been given.

Proponents of the program believe that it will mark the beginning of the end for adware. "I think we'll look back at 2005 -- with the announcement of this program, advances in anti-spyware technology and dramatically bolstered enforcement -- as the turning point," said Ari Schwartz, the deputy director of the Center for Democracy & Technology, in a statement.

Others were more succinct. "For end users, this is going to put a stop to unwanted software," said Tori Case, director of eTrust Security at Computer Associates, one of the program's sponsors.

It will do that, she said, indirectly. The white list produced by Truste Download won't be used by anti-spyware vendors, but instead by online advertisers. "The cool thing about this is it's created an ecosystem that takes care of not just the adware vendor, but all the way down to the affiliates, said Case. "The market incentive will be powerful [for adware companies] to toe the line. If they don't, they're going to be shut out by advertising networks."

"The dirty little secret about adware today is that legitimate companies fuel the problem, and Truste's program promises to change that," said Jon Leibowitz, an FTC (Federal Trade Commission) commissioner, in a statement. Companies pumping unwanted software generate much of their revenue from running ads supplied by major online advertising networks, such as the pay-per-click programs of Google and Yahoo. Leibowitz sees the new program was a way to turn off that financial spigot.

"Currently, too many advertisers are part of the adware problem. As of today, I’m more optimistic that they can become part of the solution," he added.

Leibowitz could have been talking directly to Yahoo, another sponsor of the Truste program. Yahoo has been blasted for funding prominent adware makers such as Claria and 180solutions by anti-spyware researchers, including Ben Edelman of Harvard. Wednesday, Yahoo distanced itself from such practices.

"For the first time, companies, like Yahoo, will have a powerful tool to identify software applications that respect consumers and a means to monitor and enforce compliance over time," said Doug Leeds, vice president of product justice for Yahoo.

"We need a way to staunch the flow of adware," added Computer Associates' Case. "We need a way to keep it off the computer in the first place. This is it."

Other anti-spyware experts aren't so sure.

"This won't have any impact on the distribution of adware," said Richard Stiennon, director of threat research for Boulder, Colo.-based anti-spyware vendor Webroot. "The only thing this will do is let those companies that don't want to be associated with adware to stop using it as an advertising vehicle."

Adware purveyors are already under serious pressure to change their ways, and this won't be any more effective in turning them from the dark side, said Stiennon. There's just too much money to be made by large-scale adware vendors which have their own networks of affiliates, and don't rely on the likes of Yahoo or Google for income.

Truste Download Program is currently in beta, but will go live in the first quarter of 2006. More information on the initiative can be found on the organization's Web site.

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