Poor Defenders

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Congress Versus Spyware

Although the political parties have agreed on little else this year, curbing spyware has been something everyone can get behind. The House of Representatives passed a couple of anti-spyware bills on near-unanimous votes; a third advanced beyond the committee stage in the Senate and may be up for a vote by the time you read this. In the meantime, California and Utah have recently enacted their own laws against spyware (Utah's law is on hold pending a state court review of its constitutionality). But whether any of these laws will succeed in suppressing spyware remains unclear.

Here is a rundown of the three major federal bills; you can track their status at thomas.loc.gov.

Software Principles Yielding Better Levels of Consumer Knowledge (SPYBLOCK) Act (S. 2145): Sponsored by Senator Conrad Burns (R-Montana) and others, this act makes it illegal to load a program onto a PC without the user's knowledge and consent, and requires software vendors to clearly explain, prior to installation, what the program does and what types of information it collects. The bill also requires a clear uninstall procedure and sets out penalties for violators. The Federal Trade Commission would handle enforcement and administration. Status: out of committee, awaiting Senate vote.

Securely Protect Yourself Against Cyber Trespass (SPY ACT) (H.R. 2929): Sponsored by Representative Mary Bono (R-California) and others, this comprehensive bill prohibits transmission of spyware to a computer without clear authorization by the user or owner of the computer. Among other things, it also outlaws taking over a PC for the purpose of sending unsolicited information to others (setting up a zombie PC); changing a browser's home page or otherwise loading pages other than those the user intended to request; and distributing adware that won't stop serving ads and creating new pop-ups unless the user shuts down the browser or the PC. The bill sets out penalties for violations and places the FTC in charge of enforcement and setting standards for what constitutes user authorization and the like. Status: passed the House, awaiting Senate action.

Internet Spyware Prevention (I-SPY) Act (H.R. 4661): Sponsored by Representative Robert Goodlatte (R-Virginia) and others, the bill introduces new penalties ranging from fines to two to five years in prison for parties who cause spyware to be downloaded or copied onto a computer without authorization, either to compromise the computer's security or to use the information gained to defraud or injure a person. It prohibits civil suits based on violations, however. Status: passed the House, awaiting Senate action.

Anush Yegyazarian

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