June 6, 2002
By JOHN BIGGS
In February, Jennifer Pazdan thought that her computer was possessed.
Ms. Pazdan, 21, who graduated last month from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, recalls downloading the popular music-file-sharing programs Morpheus and KaZaA as well as an addictive video game called Snood. Almost immediately her computer started acting strangely. Small windows with ads started popping up on her desktop. Her normally speedy computer took more than 10 minutes to perform simple tasks, and software that she didn’t know she had began causing her Internet browser to crash, forcing her to shut down her computer repeatedly.
She found out later that the programs she had intentionally installed carried a payload of smaller software programs, with names like Bonzi Buddy and Gator, aimed at serving advertisements and tracking her Internet use.
Although the license agreements — the long chunks of legalese that users must accept — for the programs she downloaded mentioned the smaller software programs, Ms. Pazdan was taken by surprise and had no idea how to return her computer to normal.
“This has all been a really frustrating and time-consuming experience,” she said, adding that she was not sure which program carried the mysterious software.
Known as adware or spyware, programs like the ones that slowed Ms. Pazdan’s computer are popping up on the Internet ever more frequently. Mike Healan, 26, curator of an anti-adware site, www.spywareinfo.com, said that the programs are designed to lure users to e-commerce sites and in rare cases pornographic sites, and are churning up debate as more companies use them.
Proponents say that unlike viruses and worms, adware is mostly innocuous and provides a service to users. But Eric Howes, an English instructor and anti-adware campaigner at the University of Illinois who ultimately helped Ms. Pazdan remove the software from her computer, said that most people do not even know that they have the software installed.
Most of the programs he has seen offer a service, like storing online passwords or offering to speed network connections, in addition to displaying ads or tracking Web use.
Mr. Howes, 33, has seen his share of adware problems.
“My experience with students’ computers tells me that the vast majority of them have at least a few spyware applications on their computers, and they’re usually shocked when I point them out,” he said. “College students, of course, aren’t particularly choosy about the software they install.”
File-sharing programs that have carried adware have already been faulted on another front, with people in the music industry charging that such services, like the Napster of old, promote widespread copyright violations.
One prominent adware case involves RadLight, a small group of developers based in Slovakia who produce a downloadable multimedia player and bundle two programs, New.Net and SaveNow, with their product.
Igor Janos, a RadLight developer, said he decided to bundle the software after he realized that customers were not voluntarily paying for his multimedia software. “In November 2001, we went to a `free shareware’ model; since then only 45 users have registered for a total of $450,” he said, referring to RadLight. “This amount of money is definitely not enough to run a serious business.”
So his revenue is supplemented by the producers of New.Net, a program that sells new domain names with endings like .mp3 and .xxx, and SaveNow, which shows pop-up ads. The companies pay Mr. Janos for including the software with his RadLight program.
Mr. Janos said he believed that users were aware that they were installing SaveNow and New.Net, but that it was in any case not his company’s fault if users do not read the license agreement.
“RadLight is definitely not the one to blame,” he said.
Mr. Janos and his team also recently added a function to their program that searches for and deletes a popular antispyware program, LavaSoft’s Ad-aware, much as a virus or Internet worm deletes antivirus software.
“If LavaSoft is right and my programs are indeed dangerous, then I’d like to see proof,” he said. “Until then, I consider Ad-aware an illegal uninstaller.”
The problem with most adware, Mr. Healan said, is that its makers know that users of popular software like RadLight usually click past the warnings and license agreements during software installation. It is that strategy that most outrages him.
“They are parasites on the body of the Internet,” he said of the purveyors.
Yet some adware programs do not announce their presence at all: they simply hide on the hard drive or redirect Internet browsers, serving up advertisements and generally wreaking havoc.
These are the programs that give adware a particularly bad name, said Avi Naider, chief executive of WhenU, the company behind SaveNow.
Mr. Naider defends his product as a tool that serves up advertisements a few times a day based on the sites that users visit and the search strings they enter into their Internet browsers.
“It’s a source of great frustration for us when knowledgeable observers do not read our license agreement and do not look at what we do and then lump us with other players who don’t adhere to our standards of privacy,” he said.
Mr. Naider, 30, said that only a minuscule portion of SaveNow users complained about the software and that his company collected no information about its users.
“When you lump all adware together and call it spyware, you are doing a disservice to the makers of free software who are looking for a legitimate revenue model that protects consumers at the same time,” he said.
Scott Eagle, chief marketing officer of Gator, makers of one of the programs that Ms. Pazdan found on her computer, said that while adware may be unpopular, it does serve a purpose. The Gator eWallet software helps people remember their user names and passwords for Web sites in exchange for receiving pop-up ads.
“The Gator Corporation is a strong supporter of free ad-supported software,” he said. “This gives software publishers a revenue stream and allows them to concentrate on building cool, free applications that consumers love.”
But Mr. Eagle said that not all adware is created equal.
“Now, juxtapose the good adware with `spyware’ or uninvited adware — software that consumers didn’t ask for, usually software that has no value or utility to consumers beyond showing ads and that consumers don’t know they have and often aren’t easy to uninstall,” he said. “Those are the ones that are scary.”
Opponents of adware protested this spring when they learned that AltNet, a 3-D advertising program, had been bundled with KaZaA. The software came from Brilliant Digital Entertainment, an advertising technology company in Woodland Hills, Calif., that has licensed KaZaA’s file-swapping technology.
Brilliant Digital is a partner of Sharman Networks, an Australian company that acquired KaZaA’s software in May after KaZaA N.V., based in the Netherlands, announced that it was going out of business. KaZaA N.V. said it was shutting down because it lacked the resources to defend itself against legal challenges from Hollywood studios and record labels. But the service and similar programs seem likely to survive because the technology and infrastructure upon which KaZaA is based are already well established in the file-trading world.
Brilliant Digital originally designed AltNet to activate itself automatically on computers running KaZaA whenever AltNet received a signal from the company. Although the company explained that the activation would occur only with the user’s permission, KaZaA users were outraged by what they saw as an infringement on their privacy.
As for Ms. Pazdan, she said she planned to be more careful downloading programs from the Internet. But sometimes even that strategy falls short.
“I had one more encounter with spyware,” she said. “I installed a program and before I even got to use it, my screen filled up with errors, a new one literally every second.”
The program, which was advertised as being free of adware, was bundled with three hidden adware applications.
“I think I’ve learned my lesson,” she said.