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Spyware, A Thorn In My Side

Spyware is an onoxious form of marketing, if nothing else. So what are the big guys going to do about it? And just what is Microsoft's role with Claria?

The scenario: You are doing research on the Web -- which, by the way, is what a vast majority (more than 80%) of so-called surfers do " and you find a link that looks right on target. You click on the link, and -- voila! -- you've got your information. Unfortunately, by visiting that Web site, you've also just downloaded spyware -- even if you never dealt with a single pop-up window.

Such "drive-by downloads" of spyware (any application that keeps tabs on a computer users' surfing preferences and is unknowingly downloaded) are becoming increasingly common. For that reason, some have taken to abandoning Internet Explorer, and are now among the Firefox faithful. But there are reports from at least a couple of software vendors that spyware targeting Firefox will debut this year. What to do now?

A first step was taken on Tuesday by the Anti-Spyware Coalition. The alliance of technology companies and public interest groups recently released a draft of its definition of spyware. The theory is that by defining the dreaded malware, users will be more proactive in their fight against it: An informed user is a better protected user. The ASC is actively seeking public comment on the 13-page spyware document.

So that's a good beginning, and follows grandma's advice that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Other steps need to be forthcoming as well, including more action from the major software vendors. But what do make of the situation between Microsoft and Claria? Earlier in the week, Microsoft was forced to issue a statement in response to questions about Claria. In a nutshell, critics claim Microsoft bent the rules when it came to classifying Claria's software as NOT spyware (Claria's product line includes ScreenScenes and GotSmiley). Why would Microsoft do that? Because, say those critics, it has its eye on buying Claria. For its part, Microsoft maintains it has done nothing out of the ordinary or improper in its dealings with Claria. Still, one wonders why the Redmond giant hasn't put more effort into a solving the spyware problem as it directly impacts users of its own IE.

I'm sure there are plenty of hypotheses to that question. I'd like to hear them. Drop me a note on what you think can and should be done to eliminate or at least reduce the spyware problem. After all, it'd be illegal for a marketer to bug your house to see what television programs you watch, or what kind of canned tuna you buy. But A.C. Nielsen has been finding out just that kind of information for more than 80 years -- totally legally. The company does it by striking a consensual deal with the sample families they select. Until Internet marketers understand the importance of being above board, they will never gain mainstream acceptance.

What do you think?

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