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Spyware Companies Beware: New Consumer Protection Initiative to Combat Spyware

Spyware Companies Beware: New Consumer Protection Initiative to Combat Spyware and Other "Badware"

Harvard's Berkman Center and the Oxford Internet Institute Unveil Backed by Google, Lenovo, Sun; Consumer Reports WebWatch Takes Unpaid Special Advisor Role

Cambridge, MA - Harvard University's Berkman Center and the Oxford Internet Institute today launched a "Neighborhood Watch" initiative against spyware and other malicious software programs. will spotlight the companies that make millions of dollars by tricking Internet users to download malicious spyware, adware and malware programs they don't want. The multiyear initiative will empower consumers to fight back against badware. It is being supported by prominent high-tech companies, including Google, Lenovo and Sun Microsystems. Consumer Reports WebWatch, a grant-funded project of Consumers Union, has agreed to a pro-bono role as special consumer adviser.

The Berkman Center and Oxford Internet Institute hope this initiative serves as a deterrent by publishing names and reports of companies spreading badware and as an educational tool for software developers by providing principles they can follow to provide a positive user experience. A new website has been launched,, where Internet users will be able to check to see if programs they want to download are badware and alert others to malicious programs they have encountered.

"Intruders are now in your house without your permission," said John Palfrey, co-director of and Executive Director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. "They entered through your computer to bombard you with sneaky pop-ups and install tracking software to spy on your every move and steal your most personal information, such as credit card or Social Security numbers, in order to sell that data to a stranger. will shine a much needed light on the unethical activities of these companies."

"The power and promise of the Internet is that anyone can write and distribute code for tens of millions of others to adopt and run," said Jonathan Zittrain, co-director of and Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation at Oxford University. "The downside of this is that bad code can too readily get onto the public's PCs. Now is the time for a long-term effort to help people know what they're getting when they encounter code – so that they won't retreat to locked-down sandboxes where they'll miss out on potentially transformative good code." 

Whether spyware, incessant pop-ups or other obtrusive programs, badware today plagues millions of people by turning their computers into machines to spy on them and steal their data. Unlike viruses and worms, badware becomes embedded in a computer by downloading games or software or just by visiting certain websites. 

According to a recent Pew Internet & American Life Project, roughly 59 million American adults today have badware on their computers. Problems related to badware forced home computer users to spend roughly $3.5 billion in 2003 and 2004 to replace or repair their hardware, according to Consumer Reports.

"Badware and its nastiest effects - violation of privacy, identity theft, and computer hijacking - hit consumers without warning," said Beau Brendler, director of Consumer Reports WebWatch, a grant-funded initiative of Consumers Union, the non-profit publisher of Consumer Reports magazine. "WebWatch research shows these and other threats are turning almost a third of U.S. Internet users away from the Web. We believe is a great way to fight back."

"For the last decade, we have been amazed and delighted by what we can do online. And yet people feel increasingly powerless to stop unscrupulous individuals and companies from infecting their computers with programs that they didn't request," said Vint Cerf, one of the Internet's founding fathers and Chief Internet Evangelist at Google. "The providers of Internet services and software simply must get this problem under control so the users can realize the full potential of their access to the Internet."

"Whether its songs, movie clips, games or other content, we increasingly live in a ‘download' world," said Craig Merrigan, Vice President of Strategy, Lenovo. "But consumers need not feel powerless against spyware and other malicious badware while they are online. Through initiatives such as, we can empower consumers to seize back control of their computers."

"We want to use the power of the network to win the battle against malicious spyware and other badware and we'll enlist every computer user to the fight by telling their stories and reporting the worst purveyors of these programs," said Susan Landau, Distinguished Engineer, Sun Microsystems. "Sun is pleased to be part of, a significant effort to regain control of our computers from badware. We urge everyone to visit to help us fight back against badware."

According to a recent study from Webroot Software, badware today is a $2 billion-a-year industry. Specifically, it's an industry made up of hyper-aggressive, unethical marketing supported by business relationships tying legitimate advertisers to online marketers, small application vendors, website operators and shady online groups.

Here is how the program will work:  

  • Internet users can visit to check whether programs they want to download are infected with badware and alert others to programs they have encountered that include malicious software such as spyware, incessant pop-up ads or other obtrusive programs.
  • will publish short user friendly reports on downloads they have identified as badware, as well as more detailed academic studies on the problem of badware.
  • will publicize the names of companies that make up the most insidious purveyors of badware and shed light on how they make money through unethical marketing practices. For example, advertisements will spotlight the worst purveyors of badware.
  • will seek the horror stories from Internet users who have been adversely affected by badware. It will publish these stories to raise awareness of badware's harmful affects. is directed and advised by some of the most respected experts in the technology arena, including John Palfrey of the Harvard University Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Jonathan Zittrain of Oxford's Internet University and such Internet pioneers as Vint Cerf, Esther Dyson and others.

Consumer Reports WebWatch's unpaid advisory role will be to assist with program design, development of guidelines to improve consumer notice and disclosures regarding spyware, and outreach to consumer organizations and consumers. Consumer Reports WebWatch is supported by grants from The Pew Charitable Trusts and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Participation by Consumer Reports WebWatch, the Berkman Center for Internet & Society and the Oxford Internet Institute are not subject to oversight by's corporate sponsors.

The Oxford Internet Institute (OII) is a department in the Social Sciences Division of the University of Oxford. Founded in 2001, it is one of the first multi-disciplinary research centers at a major university that is focused on the societal implications of the Internet.

Jonathan Zittrain is the first Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation at the University of Oxford. A professorial fellow at Keble College, he is based at the Oxford Internet Institute where he is the director of graduate studies. A co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Jonathan also holds the Jack N. and Lillian R. BerkmanVisiting Professorship for Entrepreneurial Legal Studies in the Harvard Law School.

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