At Yahoo, Adware ≠ Spyware

Last week, Yahoo! released a toolbar (for Windows Internet Explorer) designed to detect existing installations and prevent future installations of spyware:

Anti-Spy offers consumers a way to identify potentially unwanted software like spyware, then lets consumers decide whether they want to disable/remove, ignore or keep the files that are found. If a user chooses to delete suspect software and later changes their mind, they can restore most such programs.

According to eWeek, Yahoo Plays Favorites with Some Adware

The beta version of the spyware-fighting toolbar add-on, which Yahoo released last week, doesn’t default to detect adware—a category of software in which Yahoo’s paid search division has a financial stake.

Yahoo does not consider WhenU or Claria adware to be spyware. Techdirt reports that “Yahoo’s spyware remover claims these programs are “adware” and will only remove them if you click and extra check box each time you run the program.”
Adware developers differentiate their products from “spyware” based on the fact that adware requires “consent” before installation. For more about the level of consent, see Adware: Clickwrap Licenses and Informed Consent.
Some websites may trigger Internet Explorer to download and install a program with inadequate notice to the computer user. Eric L. Howes describes the details in The Anatomy of a Drive-By Download.
For example, Martin Schwimmer is a knowledgeable and alert computer user, who carefully reads the notices on his computer screen. Yet, Schwimmer still found WhenU inadvertently installed on his system.
In the spectrum of spyware and adware, WhenU’s own software is relatively honest, albeit annoying to uninstall. WhenU also licenses its SaveNow software to other vendors, who are paid to distribute SaveNow (in order increase the number of viewers of its ads.) If WhenU licenses distribution of its software to providers who will bundle it with drive-by downloads, users may find WhenU installed on their computer without consent.
If WhenU fails to screen its bundling partners, and SaveNow can be installed without consent, perhaps anti-spyware tool vendors should consider WhenU to be spyware.
As an aside, after using Internet Explorer on Windows recently, I was struck by how different an experience is web browsing with Safari on a Mac or even Firefox on Windows. Even without adware installed, the IE user sees many more pop-up and pop-under ads. When using a computer infested with adware, ads are constantly popping up on screen, either from a web site or from adware.

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