Consider The Source, Part 2

Did you see the news this week that a group of major Internet companies announced a plan to form a coalition dedicated to weeding out advertisers who drop spyware on user hard drives?

The five companies--America Online, Yahoo, CNET, Verizon and Computer Associates International--claimed to be responding to consumer frustration regarding the kinds of spyware that generate pop-up ads, monitor which Web sites people view or capture clickstream data. Of course, many kinds of spyware also can impair computer performance.

Is it just me, or does this seem like a long overdue response? According to the Washington Post, which broke the story, the plan will undergo a test phase until next spring, and providers of downloadable programs will have to ensure that there is prominent notification that spyware or adware is included, and explain what the code does. There must be an easy way to delete the spyware or adware, and the origin of the advertising must be clearly displayed.



Sounds like simple clarification of the EULA (end-user license agreement) language that everyone from the NAI (Network Advertising Initiative) to numerous columnists like me have been calling for, doesn't it?

Downloadable applications that meet the criteria would then be placed on a "white list" of certified programs that are safe to download. The participating Internet companies would not distribute, or advertise on, programs not on the list. The system was developed in conjunction with the Federal Trade Commission and the Center for Democracy and Technology, the digital advocacy group that Ari Schwartz has done such a good job of keeping at the forefront of our industry's issues. And it will be administered by TrustE, so I'm certainly all in favor of it, even though I would have been far more in favor of it about a year ago. Fran Maier's folks know what they're doing. So, why am I writing about it now?

I'm writing about it because neither Microsoft nor Google is part of it. The Washington Post report contained one line in response from each company: "We continue to review the beta program and will re-evaluate our participation once the beta cycle has been completed," according to a statement from Microsoft.

A Google spokesman said that "we think there are positive aspects but would have preferred that some parts of it be stronger." What do these quotes mean? (Hint: nothing - by design.) Let's see if I can provide some translation.

"We were the ones that created and then drove the Privacy Protection Protocols in Internet Explorer 6, and nobody even cared then, let alone remembers now," said someone at Microsoft. "Have you even seen our anti-spyware beta? It not only rocks, it's free, dammit. We didn't need no stinkin' coalition to get that baby out, did we? And another thing, we're Microsoft --got it? We don't join coalitions, we lead the industry. You go ahead and enjoy your little group hug beta. We're not going anywhere."

Did you ever wonder how corporate quotes get created, and what they really say while seemingly saying so little? If you've read this far, take a look back at the actual Microsoft quote and see if mine doesn't seem to ring a bit more true, by reading between their lines.

As for Google, I think what they're really saying is more like: "We're going to be on every desktop anyway soon enough. Why should we care about spyware? Pretty soon, even spyware vendors are going to have to come through us. Hell, we're even giving away analytics now. Who cares if they're any good--they're ours, and we're going to be basing all pricing models on our own data. If you don't like it, know what you can do about it?" Yeah--buy some $400 stock.

It's so interesting to me, the paths that Microsoft and Google have taken these past few years. Microsoft never tried to be anything other than the company that made things work. Maybe it was "all things." But, every one of us uses the platforms it created every day. Microsoft may have stifled creativity, almost certainly did. But it also made possible much of what we do on a daily basis.

Google, on the other hand, has always tried to position itself as the company that cared more--in ways that none of us could really comprehend--aligning itself behind a kind of Hippocratic Oath of its own, on its way to global domination.

Three years ago, very few of us would trust Microsoft more than we'd trust Google. Today, I doubt that's still the case. Or, to summarize--I think there are "positive aspects" (to steal a phrase from the Google statement above) to both companies, but I would have preferred that they would learn to play nice with others.

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