Gates Weighs In On Spyware Issue

Redmond, Wash. – “We are going to help users be in control,” Bill Gates declared Friday at MSN’s Strategic Account Summit, speaking out against spyware to an audience of advertisers and marketers — exactly the type of people interested in the kind of data such programs, at least the legitimate ones, harvest.

“So-called spyware is turning the Internet into a billboard. We are going to help users be in control and know what [spyware] is on their system and if they don’t want it they can get it off their system,” said Gates. The chairman of Microsoft spoke before an audience of about 500 near the end of the two-day conference for clients and partners.

Gates’ remarks, which appear to advocate a technical solution to the spyware issue, come on the heels of a flurry of legislative action, some of which is thought to have potentially negative consequences for software and Internet firms.

The term spyware generally refers to software programs that collect data about computer users and send that information back to the software maker over the Internet without a user’s knowledge. Where the definition gets tricky is when it comes to determining exactly what constitutes adequate disclosure of data gathering and transmission practices.

In some cases, the software developer clearly has malicious intent, but, in others, such functions merely serve to collect data that enables better targeting of ads, or tracks whether ads have been viewed. In fact, though Gates spoke out strongly against spyware, his own company has been accused on numerous occasions of compromising users’ privacy with its software applications. Security vulnerabilities within Windows, too, have been blamed for allowing so-called “drive-by downloads,” in which software is installed without a computer user’s knowledge.

Consumer concern with spyware seems lately to have hit critical mass, and lawmakers are taking notice. Last month, U.S. Sens. Conrad Burns and Barbara Boxer introduced legislation to prohibit spyware, adware and other intrusive software. The proposed act, known as Spyblock, would make it illegal to install software on a user’s computer without notice and consent.

Utah this week passed an anti-spyware law, which was opposed by many of the leading players in the industry, including Microsoft, AOL, Yahoo and Google. Among their objections was the fear that the legislation would forbid the collection of information to allow the precise targeting of advertising.

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