Opponents Push Back against Anti-Spyware Bill

Matt O'Conner
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Online advertisers won a major battle Wednesday when the U.S. House of Representative agreed to amend an anti-spyware bill to explicitly exempt all types of cookies and allow embedded ads on web pages without identifying information.

The Securely Protect Yourself Against Cyber Trespass Act, sponsored by Rep. Mary Bono (R-Calif.), inched closer to passage as the Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection approved the measure, which now goes before the full Commerce Committee for a vote.

The SPY ACT targets practices such as phishing, keystroke logging, homepage hijacking and the uploading of ads that can’t be closed without shutting down a computer. It also would prohibit websites from installing software on a user’s computer without first giving notice, describing in simple terms what the software does, and obtaining the user’s explicit consent.

Violators could face civil penalties of up to $3 million per incident.

Previously, the bill included provisions banning third-party cookies, which are used by advertisers, publishers and service providers to serve, rotate, target, cap, measure and report on online advertising.

Rep. Clifford Stearns (R-Fla.) said the cookie amendment was added to prevent legitimate businesses from being wrongly prosecuted due to unclear definitions.

“This amendment otherwise clarifies an excellent bill,” Stearns said. “The bill should not penalize authentic use of the technology.”

Perhaps even more significantly, the amendment also removes language from the bill that would have required embedded ads, including pop-ups that appear without a site’s sanction, from posting identifying information so that users can find and remove the software that created them.

Advertising-industry lobbyists won the concessions without debate, but critics claim they have simply stopped trying to fight for a strong anti-spyware law because Congress has stopped listening to them.

“The trouble is that legislators are afraid to take a stand against adware,” Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum, told XBiz. “They let the people they’re supposed to be protecting us against help to write the laws, and [the laws] get watered down to the point where it’s useless.”

Adult websites in particular have come under fire for alleged spyware practices. In a Fox News story on spyware, Gary Guseinov of consulting firm Network Dynamics claimed “ninety-five percent of porn sites load users up with spyware and porn dialers.”

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) said he will seek additional changes, noting that the latest amendment fixes only some of the bill’s problems. At the conclusion of Wednesday’s legislative session, Barton invited industry interests to voice their concerns so he can propose additional amendments before the bill goes to the full house for a vote.