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WeatherBug privacy czar Dan O’Connell posted a long blog entry on setting standards in the adware business.

Comparing the adware label applied to adware as a “Scarlet A” (a reference to Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter), he supports some type of industry definition of spyware/adware.

He makes a good point with this statement: “What has been missing in the largely academic debates on the topic is a nod to the consumer…I dare say that, in the minds of most ordinary, software consuming folks, adware equals spyware.”

He’s right, of course. Adware=spyware=adware=spyware. It’s just the way the term has evolved.

Now, WeatherBug is actually a legit player and I laud O’Connell for what he’s done at that company. We list them in our product as “low risk”, and code the default action as “ignore”. The company has been exceptional in their notice, disclosure, and the ability for people to remove the program easily.

But we still list them. Why? It comes down to our philosophy, a mix of objective and subjective criteria. Our listing criteria lays out the core principles of how we determine a program is adware or spyware. And our blog entry discusses some of the thinking behind it.

O’Connell says this: “I still believe that a distinction has to be drawn between adware and advertising-supported software. The former can be a “threat” if delivered without meaningful notice and consent. The latter is not.”

Well, there are problems with this thinking. A nasty piece of adware can provide plenty of meaningful consent and even provide a handy-dandy uninstaller. But what about the problem of rogue affiliates who backdoor-install adware? And what about the problem of system instability by having programs spawn pop-ups, mess with your browser settings, install themselves as browser helper objects, install themselves into the LSP stack (part of TCP/IP), etc.?

Who will define these definitions of adware/spyware? A consortium? The government? Well, we’ve seen what a consortium can do with COAST . I don’t necessarily mind a consortium of spyware vendors. But I sure don’t want adware vendors in there as well, smoothly lobbying for a few “practical points of view”. And the government is worse. Any legislation will get watered down by slick lobbyists, as we saw with the CAN SPAM act, an absolutely worthless piece of law.

There are plenty of listing criteria available on the ‘net, but the ultimate test will be by the consumer: After installing this adware, is my machine loaded with popups? Did I really know my default search engine would be replaced with something else? Do I really understand that when I type in something in your search engine, the results I’m getting are sponsored results? Is my internet access slower? Is my machine now unstable? Do I now crash more often?

The consumer, in the end, is the ultimate arbiter of what is spyware and adware. If you’ve spent time with the average consumer lately, you know how desperate they are for information, guidance, and help. To us veterans of the ‘net, it’s all easy and simple. But the average consumer is just drowning in confusion, popups, spam, system crashes and the rest; and has absolutely no idea why it’s happening.

I say this from experience: I’m the local neighborhood spyware remover and also have four children. It’s pretty harrowing what people are going through out there, and it’s absolutely disgraceful what many adware vendors are doing in their undisguised lust for impressions and click-throughs.

To O’Connell, I applaud you for doing the right thing with WeatherBug. I only wish some of your contemporaries would do the same.

Alex Eckelberry