Harvard and Oxford team with consumer body on ‘badware’

New online 'hall of shame' for spyware and adware. Ellen Messmer reports

Harvard and Oxford universities are teaming up with consumer website Consumer Reports to launch a website called StopBadware.org. The site will be an online “hall of shame” for those trafficking in spyware or questionable forms of adware.

The decision as to what individuals, vendors or businesses might be singled out for criticism and discussion for propagating and promoting so-called “badware” will fall to the organisers of the new website operating together as the Stop Badware Coalition.

John Palfrey, professor of internet law at Harvard, co-director of the coalition and executive director at Harvard’s Berkman Centre for Internet and Society, says he expects the newly launched site to act like a “neighbourhood watch” by highlighting both criminal spyware programs and their use, as well as adware that while not illegal, could be called “unscrupulous.”

The Stop Badware Coalition expects to make its first posting naming badware in its specifics shortly.

“We’ll point out that there are a lot of things that are not illegal but may be unscrupulous,” Palfrey says.

He noted the goal of the Stop Badware Coalition and its site is to illuminate the workings of spyware and the worst forms of adware so it “will no longer be allowed to hide in the shadows of the internet. We want to help put some definitions on this”.

The impact the coalition wants to have is to “allow consumers to take a stand”, Palfrey says.

Consumers Union, the non-profit publisher of Consumer Reports has joined in the effort through its grant-funded WebWatch division.

Beau Brender, director of Consumer Reports WebWatch, says his organisation’s contribution will be to “help make value judgments” about what badware is. “There’s a lot that is legal but still annoying,” he says.

The coalition has an international thrust through the participation of Oxford University’s Internet Institute. Jonathan Zittrain, co-director of StopBadware.org and professor of internet governance and regulation at Oxford, says the time had come to help people find out “what they’re getting when they encounter code”.

One underlying concern about badware, the coalition’s organisers agree, is that people are starting to retreat from using the web as their worries about spyware and adware grows.

Funding for The StopBadware.org project is coming from Google, Lenovo and Sun, which have provided “multi-year, multi-millions” in sponsorship, Palfrey says.

The coalition’s advisory board will include individuals such as Ari Schwartz of the advocacy group Centre for Democracy and Technology, which has been active in investigating spyware and adware. Much of the research work that will be posted at the StopBadware.org site will be done by university researchers.

When asked if the Stop Badware Coalition is prepared for legal challenges from those that may object to being listed on the badware site, or internet-based attacks from spyware developers, Palfrey responded: “That could happen”. But he’s confident the basic research on the material to be published at StopBadware.org will hold up to scrutiny and provide a valuable public service.

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