Utahns may get some relief from spyware Computer pop-up ads: A state lawmaker says a new act to counteract the invasive software is a good start
By Matt Canham The Salt Lake Tribune
Secret programs burrowed into the guts of personal computers nationwide are inundating people with pop-up ads, zapping their Internet connections and turning their hard drives into paperweights.
The rise in spyware has transformed Bob Paull from a Holladay city computer technician into an exterminator.
But even Paull's computer is infested.
His home page has been obliterated, and when he tries to view certain search sites he is diverted elsewhere.
Paull has a mild case - "more of a nuisance for me," he says. But when the expert who is supposed to eliminate spyware gets slammed with it, how can it be stopped?
State Rep. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, doesn't profess to know how to eradicate the "out-and-out piracy," but he believes the state's new Spyware Control Act is a solid first swipe at some of the most obtrusive offenders - pop-up advertisers.
The new law, which Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. signed Thursday, is Utah's second attempt at halting the ubiquitous "adware" that torments computer owners and many online businesses.
Urquhart's first try was halted in the courts last year. New York-based WhenU, which uses adware to track what sites a person views before popping up targeted ads, sued, arguing the law violated the U.S. Constitution by interfering with legitimate business.
Urquhart took another crack at it. This time some of the biggest computer companies in the world helped him draft legislation that "gets at the business model of the most prominent adware companies," he said.
One of the main contributors was Paul Russinoff, director of state policy for AOL-Time Warner. Other companies, such as eBay, Google and Yahoo! also offered suggestions.
The goal: to protect businesses from spyware companies that employ shady advertising practices, such as popping up a competing ad offering a discount just as a person is about to pay for an online product.
Spyware companies would violate the law if their pop-up ads are triggered by a trademarked logo or Web site. Such companies are expected to identify Utahns by asking computer users to provide their state of residence.
"If what they do is trademark infringement then it is really going to hurt their business," Russinoff said.
Either the attorney general or a business harmed by a competing pop-up ad can file suit, under the law. They can target the company who created the adware or the company who paid for the pop-up ad.
Financial damages starting at $500 for each separate pop-up can be levied, and a judge can triple the penalty if a company violated the law knowingly. Class-action suits are prohibited.
"This empowers companies victimized by spyware companies to go out and sue them, and through that, clean up their act," Russinoff said.
AOL and the other
computer companies look at Utah as a test case. The long-term goal is to get similar legislation adopted in other states, or by Congress.
For now, all eyes are on the spyware companies to see if they will sue to block Utah's new law. Urquhart, for one, said he "wouldn't be surprised" to see the Spyware Control Act challenged.
"I am hoping they will just comply with the law," he said. "Could they sue? Sure, but I think we will prevail."
A WhenU spokeswoman downplayed the likelihood of a legal battle.
"Assuming the Utah bill was redrafted in a way that doesn't restrain any productive legitimate businesses, such as WhenU, we do not anticipate any other challenges."
But even if Utah's law goes into effect, many in the computing world, such as Paull, question its potential effectiveness.
"It is kind of like spam. They have passed laws on spam, but I don't think it has made any difference," he said.
Paull and other computer technicians expect spyware companies to move their operations overseas in an attempt to make it more difficult to enforce U.S. laws.
"I always welcome legislative help in dealing with Internet problems, but I am skeptical in the end of how much effect it can have when it is an international problem," said Pete Ashdown, president of Utah-based XMission, an Internet service provider. "In the end it is the market and the ISPs that come up with solutions to deal with these problems."
The market has attempted to do just that.
Anti-spyware software, such as the popular Spy Sweeper, is a hot item. Microsoft, whose Internet Explorer Web browser is regularly manipulated by spyware companies, is in the process of developing its own anti-spyware program. Paull said these programs are effective, but he generally must use more than one to scrub an infected PC clean. In some cases, the only option is to reformat the entire computer, starting from scratch.
Companies such as 1-800-CONTACTS and Overstock.com, and dozens of others, have filed their own suits against companies like WhenU, but results have been mixed.
The Spyware Control Act goes into effect May 1. It doesn't deal with more insidious spyware meant to fry a computer or log keystrokes to steal personal information such as credit card numbers.