180solutions sues Zone Labs

— 2:12 PM on December 1, 2005

Adware provider 180solutions has filed suit against Zone Labs (producer of anti-spyware program ZoneAlarm), alleging that ZoneAlarm improperly classifies their product as spyware. It'd be easy to dismiss the lawsuit, but 180solutions's filing actually raises some excellent points, especially when read side-by-side with an editorial 180solutions CEO Keith Smith published last week.

In his editorial, Smith points out that there are no defined or accepted industry standards regarding the "threat" level of a given program and no clear standard on which a program is judged spyware, malware, or acceptable adware. Anti-spyware makers, he argues, have a vested interest in producing products that over-inflate end-user fears and create an illusion of security, regardless of the actual threat a program represents. The overall point of his editorial is best summarized in the following quotation:

The bottom line here is that scanning applications have every right to tell the user exactly what is on their computer and to delete any program that the user chooses, so long as the scanning application provides clear and accurate explanations of what the programs in question actually are and do.

The legal filing details how 180solutions gathers data via its Zango and 180sA programs. According to 180, the Windows API Hook is used only for limited keyword comparison, and only to facilitate the delivery of targeted ads. The filing also offers details about how end-user information is kept anonymous:

Because the Windows API Hook function can be used in connection with the monitoring of mouse movements and keyboard strokes, ZoneAlarm mistakenly assumes that this is the reason for its employ by 180's products, despite ZoneLabs having been advised by 180 to the contrary.
180 defines spyware as software that "involves collecting, without consent, a user's personally identifiable information and Internet browsing habits." Since 180solutions' software is (supposedly) only installed with the consent of the user and all information is kept anonymous, 180solutions' products aren't spyware—or so the argument goes. 180solutions also notes that Symantec products do not classify 180solutions' software as a high-risk threat to user privacy or security.

It's hard to defend adware, and I won’t attempt to judge whether or not 180solutions has a case against ZoneAlarm—but regardless, they raise some good points. Anti-spyware products often don't clarify what threat a particular application might represent (or how removing it will affect other software), different products detect and rate differently, and the blacklisting of a program (as 180solutions claims Zone Labs has done) could be financially ruinous for the company that provides it. Without defending 180solutions in particular, I think they make a strong general case for agreed-upon definitions on what constitutes spyware, adware, and malware. As much as you or I might hate adware, it's a legitimate way to support a business model, provided the end-user consents and privacy rights are respected. Regardless of their past behavior, that's the type of model 180solutions is advocating, and they just might be right.

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