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Claria Software Seeks Legitimacy

The company formerly known as Gator has big plans for getting into the contextual advertising and customized search business -- but first it must shake the spyware stigma. An in-depth report.
So Is It Spyware?

Claria's business model of tying its adware to applications is how it gets into trouble with anti-spyware advocates, who say that consumers who download Claria-supported apps simply don't know what they're getting into.

David Methvin, chief technology officer and co-founder of PC Pitstop, an online checkup service for PCs, has been a leading critic of Claria. The adware company sued PC Pitstop in 2003. The lawsuit was settled; the terms were not disclosed.

Asked whether Claria's software is spyware, Methvin responded, "You'll never catch me saying that. I think the issue for all that software is that they install without the user's knowledge and consent."

But other anti-spyware vendors are not so shy. The Webroot list of most dangerous spyware lists Claria's Gator software and GAIN adware network jointly in the number-two slot.

Computer Associates' eTrust lists GAIN in its Spyware Information Center and says the software changes browser settings, including the default search provider, home, or error pages, without user permission at the time of the change. CA says GAIN silently connects to a location the user did not attempt to connect to in order to transmit personal information, and silently tracks input or personally identifiable information without user permission.

Methvin compared Claria's place in the adware/spyware hierarchy to the upper levels of Hell in Dante's Inferno. "There's various levels of Hell that Dante described, and the adware-spyware-toolbar industry is similar. The bigger and higher-profile the companies get, the more they need big advertisers to feed themselves. The more they want those advertisers, the more they have to keep themselves clear of egregious violations. The Clarias and WhenUs of the world don't want themselves associated with activities they consider bad."

Still, said Methvin, the GAIN ad engine serves no purpose that the user actually wants. "What is the benefit to users? The answer is that there is no benefit."


"If someone is looking in your window while you're getting dressed, but they don't know your name, is that not spying?" — David Methvin, PC Pitstop

Phil Owens, a product manager at anti-spyware vendor Sunbelt Software, agreed. "While they are purporting to be one of the most-used applications on the Internet, the reason is that for the last year or 18 months or so, the way they get on a user's PC is in most cases dubious at best," he said. "I don't think anyone has ever asked for Gator or GAIN to be installed on the PC."

The Claria business model also raises privacy concerns, Methvin said. Even though Claria stores information anonymously — it doesn't know users' names or any identifiable information about them, and stores all its profiling data keyed to an anonymous, numeric user ID, according to Eagle — Methvin isn't convinced.

"How comfortable do you feel with someone profiling all your activities on the computer, even if they don't know your name?" Methvin said. "I compare it to peeping Toms — if someone is looking in your window while you're getting dressed, but they don't know your name, is that not spying?"

Lack Of Disclosure

Disclosure lies at the heart of many of Claria's critics' arguments. The critics say that Claria doesn't give its users adequate notice of what its software is doing; Claria says it does.

In a June 2004 post updated in November, anti-spyware researcher Ben Edelman criticized Claria for producing a lengthy, difficult-to-understand end-user license agreement (EULA). According to Edeman, the agreement took up 56 on-screen pages, and was, at various times that year, 5,500 to 6,600 words long — longer than the entire U.S. Constitution, which weighs in at 4,616 words.

We evaluated two of Claria's products, Weatherscope and Date Manager, and found that the EULA was 2,600 words long (almost seven-eighths the length of this article) and — as Edelman noted — in unformatted text, making it difficult to read. Very few users will read that EULA.

On the other hand, the Claria software does disclose very clearly that it displays pop-up ads based on Web usage, and every ad discloses that the ad is published by Claria. Claria software must be manually installed by the user, and it is easily uninstalled by Windows' Add/Remove feature (unlike the worst spyware, which sneaks onto computers through security holes without user intervention, and which actively resists attempts to uninstall it). While the worst spyware hogs computer resources and even crashes Windows, the Claria software is streamlined and stable.

Claria says its terms of service are quite clear. Eagle said Claria's lengthy EULA is a benefit, not a liability, and that the length is fairly typical of shrinkwrap and clickwrap licenses. "In general, the lawyers will tell you more disclosure is better disclosure," he said.

He said anti-spyware vendors help boost their revenues by stirring up panic about spyware. "The more consumers are scared, the more things that Webroot can identify — or any company can identify — the better it is for their business," said Eagle. "It isn't altruistic; all these companies are running a business."

Targeting Children

Edelman said in May that Claria uses children's sites to peddle its wares, specifically EZone.com, "a site that describes itself as offering 'free, fun, family games.'" It's a charge that Claria vehemently denies.

Edelman wrote: "Ezone's privacy statement specifically claims that Ezone 'meets the guidelines of TRUSTe's Children's program' -- indicating Ezone's intention to cater to children. Beyond offering games, Ezone's site includes overstated cartoon characters, simple language, and straightforward designs that seem particularly likely to appeal to children."

Offering the software on Web sites catering to children is wrong, said Edelman, because children can't enter into contracts, including clickwrap licenses like those offered by Claria's software. Also, children are less able to make informed decisions about whether to install Claria's software.

"Claria needs the users who accept its software to be consenting adults, not kids. Advertising its software on sites that largely cater to children tends to undermine Claria's claim of receiving meaningful user consent," Edelman said.

Analyst Stein said, "Probably the biggest problem they have is the kid loads it on the family computer and then the father sees the ads and wonders how they got there."

Claria claims that most of EZone.com's users are adults and that the games offered there appeal to adults as well as children.

EZone CEO Simon Edis said his site caters to "a fairly equal split of kids and adults." He said: "Before [Edelman publicized his accusations] I wasn't even aware that the third-party ad network we use was serving Claria ads. Once we found out, we changed the site structure, adding the 'over 13' and 'under 13' buttons to the home page to make sure that no misleading ads or pop-ups/unders are shown to under-13s. It would be our preference to show no Claria ads at all, but we don't have the resources (there are only two of us!) to filter out Claria ads from the third-party ad network, and we need the ad network revenue to keep the site running."

Edis continued, "I don't believe that Claria was actively targeting kids; they simply did a media buy with an ad network, and some of the ads happened to run on our site. We have never been contacted directly by Claria to run their ads on our site."

He said EZone hopes to eventually discontinue using third-party ads entirely, but for now that's financially not feasible.

Can Claria Go Legit?

If Claria is to meet its ambitious plans of providing contextual advertising to consumers based on their prior Web-surfing habits, it will need to fight off heavyweight competition from the likes of Google, Yahoo, and Amazon.com. As difficult as that battle will be for Claria, shaking off its reputation as a spyware vendor might be even harder. The obstacles between Claria and its goals may prove to be too great for it to overcome.

Read the sidebar: Claria Software--Unsafe At Any Speed

Mitch Wagner is senior online news editor for InformationWeek.