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12 Jun 2005
Adware is a variety of spyware that shows ads on your computer, nominally in exchange for letting you use a program like KaZaA. Programs like Eudora and Opera that show their own ads when they're running aren't usually considered adware; typical adware pops up ads on web browsers in addition to or instead of existing ads. Often they watch the URLs and try to show ads related to the URL, so if you visited a web site for contact lenses, adware would pop up an ad for a competitor that's paid the adware company to do so.
Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, adware is inherently abusive. One reason is that you just can't get meaningful informed consent from the user when it's installed. Adware is usually included with software that applies to kids, e.g. kazaa and games, so a 14 year old is consenting to sell his parents' clickstream. Moreover, there's a persistent market failure in personal data in that people, adults as well as kids, place a very low value on it until they realize what they've given away. There's reasons that even a willing seller with a willing buyer cannot sell his own kidney, and I believe that we will come to realize that selling personal data is much the same. You might think you can do without it, but the costs to yourself and to society if you guess wrong are too high to risk it. The adware install program should say in big red letters:
Is it OK to send a complete log of everything that everyone does on this computer to some company you never heard of who will sell it to the highest bidder?
but somehow it never does.
The second problem is that adware is parasitic. It's the digital equivalent of going to a newspaper box, putting in your 50 cents, pasting your ads on top of the real ones in all the papers, then claiming that since you didn't break into the box it must be OK. I am not a fan of copyright overreach, but I think that web site owners would have a strong case that when adware stuffs its ads into or onto their web sites, they're creating an infringing derivative work.
The worst problem is that once you've installed someone's adware on a Windows box, you've turned your computer into a zombie that they control. Maybe they're telling the truth about what they collect and what they do with it, maybe they're not, but there's no way to tell short of using a packet sniffer on your network connection. Given the history of adware companies, which range from dodgy on down, you'd be nuts to believe that there won't be mission creep. Even if there's no mission creep now, are you sure there won't be later when the money gets tight, or if the adware company goes bust and its assets are sold? I'm not.
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