U.S. House Approves Anti-Spyware Bill Over Web Industry Objections

WASHINGTON — Seeking to address an issue that is of great concern to web surfers, merchants and advertising affiliates alike, the U.S. House of Representatives has approved an anti-spyware bill — a bill that critics say is far too broad and will catch far more than spyware in its net.

H.R. 964, or the “Securely Protect Yourself Against Cyber Trespass Act” (Spy Act) prohibits a wide range of “unfair or deceptive acts or practices relating to spyware,” including using another person’s computer to “send unsolicited information or material from the computer to others,” and “diverting the Internet browser of the computer.”

“Today’s legislation provides consumers with new tools to protect themselves from unwanted, harmful software,” said Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) on the House floor last week.

According to the Direct Marketing Association (DMA), however, the legislation does more than that — much of which would negatively impact not just advertisers but consumers themselves.

“964 really just goes too far,” Stephanie Hendricks, director of public affairs for the DMA told XBIZ. “The way it defines ‘information collection programs,’ for example, is far too broad.”

Hendricks said that the language of the Spy Act is open to such a wide range of interpretation that it “could potentially cover benign use of cookies,” like online shopping cart mechanisms, ‘favorites’ lists, and unobtrusive contextual advertising applications.

To express opposition to the legislation, the AMA and 31 other associations and corporations sent a letter to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif) and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) stating in part that the Spy Act “goes far beyond regulating spyware and cuts to the heart of the information economy and the unprecedented growth of the Internet.”

If not corrected, the current language of the bill would “limit the seamless Internet experience that is responsible for the widespread adoption of the Internet by consumers,” the groups stated in their letter to Pelosi and Boehner.

In the letter, the groups also asserted that regulating web pages as forms of “computer software” or “information collection programs,” would “radically alter the consumer Internet experience by undercutting the operational functionality of web pages, fulfillment of product and service offerings, and important advertising and marketing practices.”

The fundamental problem with the Spy Act, according to Hendricks, is that takes the wrong approach to the problem, seeking to restrict a technology itself, instead of focusing on poor conduct of some who employ that technology.

“Technology is neutral,” Hendricks said. “It is a question of how technology is used.”

H.R. 964 is not the only anti-spyware bill that was under consideration by the House. The other version of the legislation, H.R. 1525, did have the support of the DMA, according to Hendricks.

“1525 really focuses on penalties for people who misuse the software,” Hendricks told XBIZ. “It gives greater resources to the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) to go after bad actors.”

The bill’s Congressional sponsors have said that they are cognizant of the concerns expressed by the AMA and other critics, and feel that the Spy Act has adequately addressed those concerns.

“Anytime we legislate on highly technical matters, there is always a danger of stifling innovation and making the use of legitimate software too burdensome,” Towns said last week. “It is a very difficult tightrope to walk, but I think we have done an excellent job in walking that line.”