“Rich Internet Applications” and Spyware

Bob Tedeschi runs a good article on “rich Internet applications.” This technology is a small applet that is downloaded to the user’s computer to facilitate getting the user to the right place. For example, the software will monitor a user trying to check out from an e-commerce site and will request a correction if the user types an invalid zip code. Using this technology dramatically improves checkout rates—the article cites how TJMaxx.com had 50% more customers complete the checkout process using this technology.

So far, so good. But isn’t “rich Internet applications” a synonym for “spyware”? The software is surreptitiously downloaded to the user’s computer, watches their every move and varies its content displays based on user behavior (including, in some cases, based on users’ personal data). Poorly drafted anti-spyware laws have the risk of making these types of programs illegal or heavily regulated (i.e., lots of disclaimers/additional screens of disclosures before the user can gain the benefit). As a result, these types of technologies expose exactly how regulators are out-of-sync with the market and consumer behavior. In the zeal to be the toughest on spyware, there’s a real risk the regulators will merely force us back to hard-to-complete e-commerce checkout processes.