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New bill aims to shine light on spyware

By Erica Hill
CNN Headline News


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(CNN) -- If you've ever wondered how software got on your computer, and spent even more time wondering how to get it off, chances are you've encountered spyware.

Spyware is software that installs itself on your computer without your knowledge. It could sneak in as part of a virus or as a Trojan horse via e-mail, or piggyback onto a piece of software you agreed to download. Either way, it's typically tough to remove.

"What's very interesting is that a lot of times when people do figure out how to uninstall spyware, they usually do," said Doug Isenberg, an attorney specializing in intellectual property and Internet law. "There was a lawsuit recently over some adware, and it came out in the lawsuit that 100 million people had downloaded this particular software, unaware that there was some piggybacked adware with it, and 75 million chose to uninstall it."

Three U.S. senators are counting on that. Late last week, Democrats Barbara Boxer of California and Ron Wyden of Oregon, and Republican Conrad Burns of Montana, introduced the Software Principles Yielding Better Levels of Consumer Knowledge (SPYBLOCK) Act. The goal is to give consumers more control over the programs they download.

"It makes it a lot more difficult for companies that offer spyware and adware to install it on your computer without your knowledge," Isenberg said. "There have to be conspicuous notices, as to what the software is, that it's being installed, and the bill -- if it were to become law -- requires that the software has to be easy to uninstall; something that's actually very difficult these days."

Isenberg, who is also the founder of GigaLaw.com, said he doesn't expect much opposition to the bill, noting it likely has a good chance of passing. However, SPYBLOCK is not without its critics.

"There are already some critics who say this bill is a good idea but it may not go far enough," Isenberg said. "The bill gives the [Federal Trade Commission] the authority to enforce this law, but it does not give users like you and me the right to sue."

We may hear more from the FTC soon; it will hold a full-day hearing and workshop, "Monitoring Software on Your PC: Spyware, Adware, and Other Software," on April 19. The focus is to better define and understand spyware, its origins, effects and possible responses.

Even if the bill has a large amount of support, other hurdles will remain. Isenberg mentioned the ever-present issue of governing the Internet on an international level. If spyware and adware originate outside the United States, enforcement could be difficult.

This is also the first legislative effort to block spyware; changes could come to the proposed legislation. One thing is certain: the issue isn't likely to hide.


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