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What's fair in online love and ads?

PC World
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By Tom Spring

(IDG) -- If you think online ads are getting more annoying, you're not alone.

Consumer advocates are up in arms over "adware" -- a new class of advertising products that typically installs on your PC as part of a software download. Once it's there, adware does tricks like putting commercial links and ads on Web pages you visit -- without the site's consent.

Recent adware controversies have centered on Gator and Ezula, two firms that bundle their adware with dozens of popular programs, including the game Snood, utilities like WeatherBug, and file-sharing software including Kazaa and AudioGalaxy Satellite.

Gator covers banner ads on a site with ads from its clients. The program also sends periodic reports to Gator's server about the Web sites you've visited and the ad banners you've clicked, so Gator can bring you ever-more-relevant ads. According to the company's lengthy privacy policy, the data Gator collects is anonymous and will not be sold.

Ezula's TopText, by contrast, works by overlaying hyperlinks onto whatever Web page you're viewing. While visiting ESPN.com, for example, you might see a yellow TopText link on the word football that, if clicked, would take you to a competing sports site.

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The trend shows few signs of abating. Ezula and Gator say that their advertisers are very pleased with results, and they say that millions of PCs have loaded the software.

Sneaky or smart?

Critics say these new ad techniques violate consumers' rights and infringe on copyright laws by changing a Web site's content and design. One trade group, the Internet Advertising Bureau, says Gator's practice of covering a site's ads with Gator's clients' ads illegally interferes with the contractual relationship between the site and its advertisers. Gator has countered with a declarative-relief civil suit against IAB, seeking to have its practice ruled to be lawful.

Consumer groups also criticize the way adware often is slipped into downloads without what they say is adequate notification.

Gator CEO Jeff McFadden says users aren't tricked into installing his software (adware programs are listed in the terms-of-service -- TOS -- contracts users must accept before they can download), and he says there's nothing wrong with helping people get free software in exchange for seeing ads. Michele McGarry, spokesperson for Ezula, says users are notified about TopText and it's up to them to opt in or out of it.

Many users overlook the particulars of the often-dense TOS agreements, however. So some people realize they have adware only when extra links appear on Web pages or when ads multiply.

Web surfers' ire over these programs is having an impact. Spedia, which distributed a program like TopText, stopped in response to complaints. Spedia had bundled adware with its SurfPlus software, which blocks pop-up ads.

In the meantime, privacy experts caution users to download prudently. You need, they say, to be aware of what you're downloading and who produced it. And no one surfing today's Net should confuse "free" with annoyance-free.

How to get rid of adware

Ideally, you'll keep adware off your PC -- unless you want it -- by being careful about what you download. But if you've already been bitten, try these tips.

To detect adware:

  • Open the Windows Task Manager by pressing Ctrl-Alt-Delete. It lists the programs running in the background.
  • Visit Scumware.com. One of its applets detects Ezula TopText or Spedia SurfPlus.
  • Use a firewall like ZoneAlarm. It alerts you when any program attempts to send or receive data (such as any personal information) and lets you block or approve each attempt and find out which apps are making the requests.

To remove the programs:

  • Open Windows' Control Panel and uninstall the software with the Add/Remove Programs applet.
  • Check the free Ad-Aware program by LavaSoft. It helps you remove programs installed surreptitiously on your PC.

 
 
 
 


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