TRUSTe to Police Adware

  |  November 16, 2005   |  Comments

UPDATE: New 'Trusted Download' program aims to help advertiser identify white-hat adware players.

Several industry heavyweights have teamed up to back an initiative meant to help advertisers determine which adware programs are worthy of receiving their ad dollars.

TRUSTe's new Trusted Download Program will create a whitelist of downloadable software that has been certified to adhere to certain best practices. To be placed on the whitelist, adware and trackware must prominently disclose the types of advertising that will be displayed, personal information that will be tracked, and user settings that may be altered.

"This program will introduce specific, new standards of notice, consent, and consumer control for the online advertising marketplace," said Trevor Hughes, executive director of the Network Advertising Initiative. "This is a major and important initiative that takes an important step toward defining a grey area and help advertisers understand where they can safely place their brand online."

The whitelist will be used by companies -- beginning with program sponsors Yahoo, AOL, Computer Associates, CNET Networks and Verizon -- to make business decisions about advertising, partnering or distributing software products. In theory, this will provide software developers with incentives to meet the requirements and earn certification.

"TRUSTe's efforts to separate legitimate programs from rogue software will be invaluable to Web advertisers and publishers who care about protecting their brands online," said Jules Polonetsky, vice president of Integrity Assurance for America Online.

The idea is to take a "carrot and stick" approach, Hughes said. The carrot for adware providers is the incentive to boost their reputation by involving themselves in the program. The stick is the loss of business that would likely result by not meeting the certification standards, which would ideally lead to more advertisers refusing to do business with them.

For Verizon, the whitelist will be used to help it determine where to spend marketing dollars, with certified applications getting the bulk of expenditures, according to Chief Privacy Officer Margo Hammar.

"Obviously, certified applications are more appealing to Verizon because of adherence to a set of verifiable standards. Verizon’s focus is on providing quality products and services and upholding the customer’s expectation -- and our commitment -- that we will maintain their trust and act in their best interest. We cannot see where using spyware or any of these prohibited activities are in anyone’s best interest -- the customer’s or ours," Hammar told ClickZ News.

Since the program is just launching in beta stage, most participants have not yet defined hard and fast policies for how they'll use the whitelist, but most expect it to play a role in determining companies with whom they will and will not do business.

Other requirements for certification include obtaining opt-in consent before the download, providing clear uninstall instructions, and labeling ads with the name of the adware program.

TRUSTe will be responsible for monitoring and enforcing the standards. The requirements for software companies seeking certification were announced today, and a beta launch is expected early next year. In the meantime, TRUSTe is accepting additional feedback from interested stakeholders.

"I think we'll look back at 2005 -- with the announcement of this program, advances in anti-spyware technology and dramatically bolstered enforcement -- as the turning point in beginning to truly distinguish good actors from bad in the downloadable software space," said Ari Schwartz, deputy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, which provided review and guidance on the program. "All of these developments are helping to tip the balance in favor of consumers in determining what software ends up on their computers." Schwartz also heads up the Anti-Spyware Coalition, a group of anti-spyware software makers which is developing standards of its own.

As expected, most major adware vendors are on board with the program. In fact, most say that having clear standards will help them differentiate themselves from the real "bad actors" that cause many people to lump adware and spyware under the same heading.

"The establishment of industry best practices around the principles of notice, consent and consumer control is good for consumers, and helps establish a roadmap on clear rules of the road for software companies," Scott Eagle, Claria's CEO, told ClickZ News. "Now that there are documented industry best practices, we will review, and as needed, we'll address any new provisions and required changes. We are supportive of these best practices, and we look forward to applying for certification of our GAIN software."

While most adware providers say they have internal practices that address these issues, there are some specific provisions that many will need to be addressed before they can be certified, such as rules calling for more prescriptive ad labeling.

"We've long labeled our ads, but these criteria require us to provide consumers with information on where they originally downloaded our client. This is something we're already working on and will be in place by the time certification starts," said Sean Sundwall, spokesperson for 180solutions.

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Kevin Newcomb

Kevin Newcomb joined ClickZ in August 2004, covering search marketing and other online marketing topics. He has been reporting on web-based businesses since 2000.

Before the bubble burst, Kevin was a marketing manager for an online computer reseller, handling copywriting, e-mail marketing, search marketing and running the affiliate program.

With a combination of real-world marketing experience and years of business journalism, Kevin brings to ClickZ a unique ability to deliver news and training materials that help online marketers do their jobs better.

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