StopBadware.org puts AOL software on 'badware' list

StopBadware.org, the group spearheaded by Harvard Law School and Oxford University to warn consumers about software it deems harmful or deceptive, Monday issued a notice flagging AOL's client software used in the AOL online service as "badware."

AOL 9.0 has been added to the "Badware Watch List," a kind of software hall of shame, because the AOL software compels the installation of additional and unnecessary software without informing the user, according to StopBadware.org. AOL 9.0 also forces users to take actions they can't avoid, while also installing "potential adware components" in a manner viewed as badware behavior.

Being added to StopBadware.org's growing watch list--which includes an assortment of screen savers, gaming applications, Kazaa, and spyware that are said to display badware traits--drew immediate attention from AOL.

Clearly stung by the criticism, AOL said it would address several of the issues raised by StopBadware.org concerning AOL. 9.0. In addition, AOL said its upcoming client software--not yet named but now in beta--would be substantially different from the now 3-year-old AOL. 9.0.

"In the current version, AOL 9.0, we're taking steps to address this," said AOL spokesman Andrew Weinstein, alluding to StopBadware.org's criticism that the additional software installed with AOL 9.0--QuickTime, RealPlayer, Viewpoint Media Play and Pure Networks Port Magic--is done without informing users.

"These programs support functionality in AOL, but [StopBadware.org] wants additional disclosure, so we're adding that language for the users," said Weinstein. He said it was unlikely AOL would alter the AOL 9.0 at this point to make it possible for users to not install the additional programs with the AOL browser.

However, the next version of the AOL client software, expected out in a few months will have fewer programs bundled into it, mainly because most users now have these programs anyway, said Weinstein.

StopBadware.org also objected to AOL 9.0 compelling users to update their connectivity services by displaying a dialog box that can't be closed otherwise, and adding certain "AOL-centric shortcuts," including the AOL Toolbar, additional icons and folders, without a user's permission. Potential adware components, called Softomate Toolbar and Fizzlebar, both install and can potentially function as adware.

"Clearly, AOL does not belong in the same category as the malicious badware providers we have previously identified," noted John Palfrey, co-director of StopBadware.org and executive director of Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet & Society. "But the free version of AOL 9.0 that we tested, in our view, does not live up to the company's rich legacy."

Palfrey said StopBadware.org had provided AOL with an advance copy of the report issued Monday, and was "impressed" with AOL's response to identify and rectify potential problems.

Palfrey said, "With this report, we highlight ways AOL 9.0 constitutes badware while calling on AOL to provide users with proper information on what exactly they are putting on their computers and a means of to opt-out or uninstall unwanted programs."

Stopbadware.org co-director Jonathan Zittrain, who is professor of Internet governance and regulation at Oxford University, said "mainstream software providers" must inform users of installation details so they will be "aware of what is happening to their machines, can exercise meaningful choice over updates, and are provided with the means to easily remove software should they change their minds."

Google, a sponsor of the StopBadware.org project, recently announced it would actively warn users using its search service about any programs and applications listed on the Badware Watch List if they tried to access them.

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Ellen Messmer

Network World (US online)

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