Challenging Spyware


My son came upstairs Friday night and told me the computer had told him we had a virus and wanted him to download a program. Fortunately, he's pretty bright and noted right away that it didn't look like the usual virus warnings he'd seen before from our virus scanning software and wanted to know what to do. You guessed it, the warning was being generated by a pop-up from some piece of spyware loaded on the computer. I have a separate computer for the kids because they're always clicking on something. After about 3 months of use by kids, your typical PC is so infected that your best chance is to just blow away the OS and reload.

The New York Times had a story today (usual disclaimer about free registration required) on Spyware and the legal efforts being undertaken to stop spyware with legal means and even mentions Utah's efforts. The Utah law has its basis in a lawsuit brought by a Utah company (1-800-Contacts) against WhenU.com, a spyware vendor.

The bill's sponsor, state Representative Stephen H. Urquhart, said that the law focused on giving computer owners notice of what was being done to their machines and the opportunity to refuse the software or remove it easily. "I'm convinced over 75 percent of the people who have this on their computers have no idea it's there," he said.

The law that WhenU.com is challenging has its origins in a lawsuit against the company by a Utah company that sold contact lenses. The company, 1-800-Contacts, said it was losing customers because WhenU was placing ads for lens-selling rivals when visitors came to the 1-800-Contacts site. It sued WhenU in federal court in New York.

"We've made substantial investments in our trademark and copyrights and consumer awareness," said R. Joe Zeidner, vice president for legal affairs at 1-800-Contacts, and "we think there needs to be protection in place for business."

Last December, Federal District Judge Deborah A. Batts granted an injunction prohibiting WhenU from serving pop-up ads for rivals of 1-800-Contacts - a departure from other case law that had supported WhenU's practices

WhenU.com has challenged Utah's law saying it will outlaw what WhenU.com does. Duh! That's the idea, isn't it?

Even so, I remain somewhat skeptical that the law will have the desired effect given the ineffectiveness of anti-SPAM laws. It might take WhenU.com down, but it can't touch off shore activities and those will just grow to fill the gap as far as I can see.