Spyware, the Pew Report, Anti-Terrorism Efforts and Coping with Spam

I’m a little late blogging about the most recent Pew report on spyware. A couple of weeks ago, Pew Internet & American Life Project released its report “Spyware: The threat of unwanted software programs is changing the way people use the internet.” I thought the report was generally interesting, but one fact stood out above the others: “91% of internet users say they have made at least one change in their online behavior to avoid unwanted software programs.”

I think it’s tempting to lament these behaviorial changes. At minimum, they represent a loss of innocence. Plus, there might be deadweight losses from these changed behaviors–if these changes do not produce any corresponding benefit, they just represent wasted effort.

I’ve wrestled with these issues as I’ve witnessed our response to terrorism (particularly after 9/11). As a society, we have increased our spending on security–new assets (super-duper baggage scanners), new labor (screeners), new time-consuming practices (it takes me 5 minutes to get through baggage scanning…and don’t even get me started on the time my plane was diverted from National Airport to Dulles because some yutz stood up from his chair in the last 10 minutes of the flight). Collectively, these represent a major social expenditure, and I’m not sure if we get back concomitant social benefits.

However, there’s another way to look at this issue, a viewpoint I am slowly embracing. There will always be terrorists, just like there will always be purveyors of viruses, malware and other harmful software. As much as we’d like to retain our innocence, we necessarily must incur some costs to cope with these inevitable threats as part of the consequences of living in a complex society. So given that we have to incur costs to protect ourselves from online threats, my policy objective is to make sure that those costs are appropriately measured at each incremental step.

On that front, I found the 91% statistic from Pew to be good news, not bad. We need online users to exercise some vigilance against online threats, and the Pew report suggests that consumers are going from doing nothing to protect themselves to doing something. This is a major step in the right direction, and I’m reasonably confident that society gets concomitant benefits from these incremental steps.

This statistic also reinforces a pattern that I’ve seen with various new online technologies that are initially perceived as threats. One of the reasons why I’m not panicked about “spyware” is that we are in the earliest stages of dealing with spyware. There will be a number of organic systems that will automatically correct for the spyware threats–entrepreneurs will spot new market opportunities and develop new coping/protection technologies, evolved business practices will marginalize the most egregious commercial behavior, and consumers will get smarter. The Pew report shows that the latter system is already organically correcting itself. We don’t need new laws to do what consumers will naturally start doing themselves. A little patience will show that the spyware threat can and will be contained even if it is never eliminated–just like the threat of terrorism can be controlled but never eliminated.

There are those who will insist on regulation nevertheless. In some cases, it may be in their commercial interest to game the legislative system. In other cases, the early abuses/excesses create such moral outrage towards the entire category that some people will demand legislative vengeance even as the problem is ameliorating in the marketplace.

However, if we can keep our cool and exercise a little patience, everyone else will find that the market self-corrects. I’m 100% convinced that if Pew releases a report on spyware in 2007, its statistics will show that consumer anxiety about and problems with spyware will be significantly lower than they are today–even if we were to roll back all the new anti-spyware laws and didn’t pass any new ones. Pew already demonstrated this phenomenon with spam (“email users say they are receiving slightly more spam than before, but they are minding it less”). I’m convinced spyware will be no different.

While many people may point to this Pew report as further evidence of a problem (which would be partially consistent with the report writer’s gentle spin on the data), instead I point to it as resounding evidence that we are on the path to a solution. The quicker we implement coping strategies, the quicker we will realize that the spyware problem is eminently controllable.