Senators Revise Spyware Bill

Gretchen Gallen
WASHINGTON, D.C. – A Senate subcommittee revised a bill this week that broadly targets several aspects of the Internet that lawmakers consider "noxious and harmful."

At the top of the committee's list of targets is spyware and adware, which lawmakers believe are becoming the next big scourge on the Internet, second only to spam email.

According to recent statistics, 90 percent of all broadband users have spyware programs installed on their computers and 94 percent of broadband users did not know that spyware came bundled with peer-to-peer programs. Typically spyware transmits information about Internet traffic patterns and generates pop-up advertisements without the user's consent.

The Senate subcommittee is also naming spyware programs in the bill that can inadvertently track users' keystrokes to lift passwords and credit card numbers.

The bill to outlaw spyware and adware from being secretly installed on computers was drafted in February of this year by the authors of the so-far ineffective Can-Spam Act, Senators Conrad Burns (R-MT), Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Barbara Boxer (D-CA).

"Programs that secretly track computer users' activities are becoming an online scourge rivaling "spam" email and should be outlawed before they prompt consumers to abandon the Internet," the Senate committee stated.

The bill, which continues to be sponsored by Sen. Burns, would force companies to obtain permission before installing a piece of software on a consumer's computer. The terms of the bill would also require that companies to provide an easy way for consumers to remove the software if they change their minds.

"It's my computer, it's my private property," stated Sen. Burns. "I bought it and paid for it for my use only, not some leech."

The Senate's concern over combating some of the darker forces of the Internet comes on the heels of several recent studies that claim computer users are becoming so discouraged by spam, spyware, and pop-up advertisements that interest in the web is waning.

The issue is further complicated by the committee's broadly targeted list of Internet ills, which in some cases names legitimate forms of marketing activity, like pop-ups, all of which need to be more clearly defined before the committee can draft a more comprehensive document, business owners are saying.

"We really have to spend a little time, take a deep breath and define what we're after here," said Jerry Berman, president of the Center for Democracy and Technology.

If passed, the bill would be enforced by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and State Attorneys General would impose fines and penalties for unfair business practices.

Several spyware bills have so far failed to make it any farther than the hearings process, including a bill in 2000 introduced by former presidential candidate Sen. John Edwards.