June 22, 2005
Some People Like "Spyware"?
I'm catching up on back reading, and I came across this December 2004 Wired News article by Michelle Delio called "Spyware on My Machine? So What?" [see update below about questions about the article]
Anti-spyware advocates are wedded to the notion that spyware is never legitimate because no one wants it. Therefore, all spyware downloads must be fraudulent or illegitimate. Yet, this article provides a number of examples of people who voluntarily downloaded "spyware" or adware knowing full well what they are doing.
For example, the article discusses how some users deliberately downloaded the Claria/Gator adware software because they wanted the e-Wallet application and were willing to trade the adware exposure for the application.
In one of the quotes that hasn't been confirmed [see update below], another user talks about how his college blocked a "spyware" application that was bundled with a file sharing program. The user says: "This sucks....I can't surf the web and I can't trade files if I uninstall the spyware. Why can't the college let me do what I want to do with my computer? The school computer security guys are being way more annoying than the spyware was."
Perhaps this reporter found the only crackpots in the world who affirmatively, intentionally and voluntarily chose to install spyware/adware on their systems [see update below], but I don't think so. In fact, I think there's a pretty large group of people who went through the exact same thought process.
As a result, the foundational assumption of most anti-spyware zealots--that "spyware" is, by definition, unwanted--is false. In turn, all arguments predicated on this inaccurate assumption are tainted.
Meanwhile, the fact that some people gladly use adware reinforces just how anti-consumer the Utah and Alaska anti-adware laws are. These laws remove consumer choice about what consumers can have on their desktop--not because such choices might harm consumers, but because such choices interfere with some websites' desires to reduce competition. The student who says that "the school computer security guys are being way more annoying than the spyware was" will next be saying "my legislators are being way more annoying than the spyware was."
UPDATE: I was working off a contemporaneous printout of the article. I see now that some questions have been raised about some quotes in the article. Wired hasn't retracted the article, but it would be nice if we could confirm the quotes in question. Nevertheless, I remain convinced that there are people who subscribe to the viewpoints articulated in this article. Certainly the research work of people like Deirdre Mulligan indicate that people are willing to make knowing tradeoffs to accept spyware as part of bundles.
UPDATE 2: I have asked one of my student research assistants to look for other articles that discuss people who like their adware/spyware. If you have any suggestions, recommendations or anecdotes, I'd be grateful if you would send them to me.
UPDATE 3: I was reviewing old material and I came across this article. Michael Warnecke, Developers Ratchet Up Anti-Spyware Efforts, But Legislators Will Wait for Tech Solutions, Privacy Law Watch (BNA), April 21, 2004. The article says;
"Matthew Sarrel, technical director for PC Magainze, said that when his magazine ran a cover story on spyware in March 2003, he received scores of e-mails from readers who said that they don't mind the hidden programs as long as the trade-off allows them to get other free software they like (such as peer-to-peer file sharing programs)."
I'll keep looking for more anecdotes like this.
Posted by Eric at June 22, 2005 09:43 AM | Adware/Spyware
I don't doubt that there are some people who would trade some information about their usage habits, etc. in exchange for a service they found valuable. The problem isn't with "spyware" or "adware" per se, it is with many of the companies who *conceal* what their software is actually doing, or engage in underhanded, deceptive practices to install it on user's machines.
*If* companies like Claria/Gator were upfront about all of the data they collect, *if* their software were well designed and didn't impact performance (or at least as much as other 'acceptable' commercial software is), and *if* it were truly "opt-in" with no sneaky installs or duplicitous "get a free toolbar!" practices, I don't think even those who do mind adware would have such a visceral reaction against it.
But those are some mighty big "ifs" and you reap what you sow.
Posted by: Dave! at June 22, 2005 10:46 AM
Good points--but I would go further and say tha tthe things you want wouldn't affect consumer behavior. My point is that even if consumers know what they are getting and get full disclosure and understand that software is packaged as a bundle, many consumers will still voluntarily choose to download the software. Eric.
Posted by: Eric Goldman at June 22, 2005 11:37 AM
Erik - it seems to me like you and Dave are in agreement - that both of you believe the choice remains with the user.
The problem that Dave points out is the imperfect information available to the user. How can I make a sound decision if I don't "really" know what's going on?
To make the analogy: I recently had repairs done on my apartment. I couldn't take time off, so I gave permission to the plumber to come in and do the repairs. Now imagine that the plumber notices something else that needs work and invites the carpenter in too - without my permission. If he calls and tells me, I would probably give consent - the user you discuss above. But that's not the situation with most spyware, and the problem that Dave discussed above.
Posted by: Tim Marman at June 22, 2005 01:15 PM
Actually, I'm trying to go one step further. I'm arguing that I don't want to know and consent to every improvement around me.
Try it a different way: if your bank decides to unilaterally give your bank account new rights (say, free ATM access at other bank's ATMs), do you need to consent to this change in your account terms? No, you say thanks (or ignore it because it's not interesting to you). Note that though the free ATM feature would be a benefit to most consumers, perhaps I idiosyncratically chose this bank and this account because I wanted their current ATM feature as it exists now. That doesn't change my feelings.
In my mind, software is a little like this. I don't want to know every system running on my computer--there are too many systems, and I don't want to expend the time to learn and consent to everything. I just want my systems to help me accomplish my goals without bothering me when I don't need to be bothered. So I (or, more accurately in this case, my IT guy) defer the decision to Microsoft; they give me a hairball bundle of software, and that works. Indeed, Microsoft makes changes to the software unilaterally, putatively to improve my experience. Fine, whatever.
Thus, I proposing a model where consumers don't give consent to everything that affects them because the transaction costs of making those decisions exceeds the value to consumers. I'm still working through the parameters of this, but I think I'm going pretty far beyond a consumer choice model.
Thanks for posting a provocative comment! Eric.
Posted by: Eric Goldman at June 22, 2005 02:58 PM