AOL's free Internet client software has earned the company a slap on the wrist from StopBadware.org, a consortium set up to combat malicious software. In a report released today, the group advises users to steer clear of the software because of its "badware behavior."
The report blasts the free version of AOL 9.0 because it "interferes with computer use," and because of the way it meddles with components such as the Internet Explorer browser and the Windows taskbar. The suite is also criticized for engaging in "deceptive installation" and faulted because some components fail to uninstall.
The main problem is that AOL simply doesn't properly inform users of what its software will do to their PCs, said John Palfrey, StopBadware.org's co-director. "We don't think that the disclosure is adequate and there are certain mistakes in the way the software is architected in terms of leaving some programs behind," he said. "When there are large programs, some of which stay around after you've thought you've uninstalled them, they need to be disclosed to the user."
Because AOL has taken steps to address StopBadware.org's concerns, the group has held off on officially rating AOL 9.0 as badware, Palfrey said.
Still, the report is not good news for AOL. Other software that has been the target of StopBadware.org reports includes Kazaa, the Jessica Simpson Screensaver, and the Starware News Toolbar.
Backed by tech companies such as Google, Lenovo Group, and Sun Microsystems, StopBadware.org bills itself as a "Neighborhood Watch" of the Internet. It is run out of two well-respected university departments: Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and University of Oxford's Internet Institute in the U.K.
Monday's report states that AOL is taking steps to address StopBadware.org's concerns, and that the company has confirmed that there is a design flaw in its uninstaller software.
An AOL spokesman said that it is "clearly ridiculous" to categorize his company's software as badware. "No company has done more to fight malware than AOL, and millions of users are protected by our software every day," said AOL's Andrew Weinstein in an email message. "We're reviewing the suggestions made in the report, and we are taking steps to address them, as they mostly involve minor UI issues."
AOL has been struggling through some major changes of late.
It has opened up its once-private network, offering the AOL 9.0 software for free in a bid to attract new users and boost online advertising as its traditional subscribers have fled. The company now has 17.7 million U.S. subscribers, a drop of 3.1 million over the past year.
Last week, three AOL executives, including Chief Technology Officer Maureen Govern left the company in the wake of a scandal over AOL's public disclosure of more than 2 million search queries made by 650,000 AOL users.
AOL has also come under fire for licensing its free antivirus software, called Active Virus Shield, with what anti-adware advocates view as excessive advertising and data gathering provisions.
Since the search disclosure, AOL has taken steps to restore consumer trust, said Chief Executive Officer Jon Miller in a recent e-mail to employees. "There is a tremendous responsibility that goes along with our mission of serving consumers online," he wrote. "We have to earn their trust each and every day and with each and every action we take."
StopBadware.org's reports can be found online.