IT leaders question Senate spyware bill

Problem is bad people, not bad software, some say

WASHINGTON - Authors of a U.S. Senate bill that attempts to outlaw spyware and some adware are headed in the right direction, representatives of IT vendors told a Senate subcommittee Tuesday, but the bill's efforts to define an illegal type of software could lead to confusion.

Instead of attempting to define spyware and outlaw some types of technology, senators should focus on outlawing the illegal actions that spyware allows, including the secret collection of consumer data, said Robert Holleyman, president and chief executive officer of the Business Software Alliance.

"We agree fully that we need to stop this spying." Holleyman told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation's Communications Subcommittee. "It's also important to recognize the problem comes from bad people, bad actors, not software."

Senators Conrad Burns, a Montana Republican; Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat and Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, introduced the Software Principles Yielding Better Levels of Consumer Knowledge (SPYBLOCK) Act in February. SPYBLOCK would prohibit installing software on somebody else's computer without notice and consent, and requires reasonable uninstallation procedures for all downloadable software. The bill would also outlaw intruders from using "any information collection, advertising, distributed computing, or settings modification feature" that's installed without consent of the computer's owner.

Senators at the hearing blasted spyware as having the ability to potentially drive consumers away from using computers and the Internet. Some spyware can track a computer user's Web surfing habits in order to tailor advertisements to the user's interests, and other spyware can capture keystrokes or personal data. "If people think they're being spied on, they're going to use that computer a lot less," Boxer said.

Burns called SPYBLOCK a "truth-in-advertising" bill, but witnesses questioned whether specifically outlawing information collection software would hinder future technologies. E-commerce companies are likely to increase their use of individualized advertising in the future, and Congress should be careful to not outlaw ethical forms of advertising, said Avi Naider, president and chief executive officer of WhenU.com Inc., a New York-based contextual advertising company.

WhenU.com's software is bundled with the downloads of no-cost software, including some peer-to-peer software. It serves ads to users based on their Web-surfing actions, such as offering coupons for hardware products when the users go to a hardware site. But WhenU.com doesn't save user data, it asks for user consent before its software is installed and allows users to uninstall the software, Naider said.

Software packages from browser developers or Internet service providers (ISPs) may eventually include adware as a way to subsidize costs, Naider said. A spyware bill that too broadly defines spyware may make such business options illegal, he added.

But SPYBLOCK's sponsors said something needs to be done about spyware and adware. "Snoops and spies are really trying to set up base camps in millions of computers across the country," Wyden said. "They're acting as parasites. How can it be that people who own computers shouldn't have them treated as personal property?"

Boxer also criticized pop-up ads, saying consumers are fed up with unsolicited advertisements, some of which are pornographic. "For me, certain issues are a no-brainer," she said of the Senate bill. "For me, it's simple. (Spyware) is not a good thing, and in the end, it's going to drive people away from their computers."

Federal legislation is needed, because a broad spyware bill is due to become law in Utah late Tuesday, unless the state's governor vetoes it, said Holleyman. Jerry Berman, president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, agreed, but cautioned senators against passing an overly broad bill themselves.

Pop-up ads may be annoying, but many such ads get to consumers without spyware, Berman added. Addressing pop-up ads is a broader issue than spyware, and Congress needs to pass a general online privacy bill, he said.

Berman uses a free e-mail service that serves him advertising instead of charging for the service, he said. "If I don't want it I can pay for a different program, and the ads will disappear," he added. "If I want to uninstall it, I just take away that program and get a different program. That kind of transparency is where consumers want to go."

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