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Ad-riddled web changing habits

As advertising invades the Internet, a survey shows users are more aware of the security risks and are changing the way they surf.

Published July 7, 2005

After years of being bombarded with unwanted popup ads and intrusive spyware software on their computers, consumers have had enough.

More have become aware of security issues, often through painful computer crashes or stolen data, and they have taken steps to prevent problems caused by the software, according to a survey released Wednesday by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

More than nine out of 10 Internet users say they have changed their online habits, from not opening e-mail with attachments to avoiding Web sites they fear could infect their machines.

And that shift is raising concerns that the continuing threat of spyware and security issues could eventually affect the growth of the Internet, both socially and commercially.

"People should be worried that it's going to have a dampening effect on trying new things," said Susannah Fox, Pew's associate director and author of the report.

The survey focused on spyware and adware, touching the ongoing debate about in your face online marketing and how advertisers are trying to reach an audience.

It differentiated between spyware and adware. Spyware is software that typically is planted on a computer without the owner's knowledge and can, among other things, steal personal information and secretly transmit it to a thief.

Adware was defined in the survey as software bundled with free files and programs that people download. Adware can track Internet habits and send targeted advertising based on that data, typically without people knowing what or why it's happening.

Either way, consumers don't like it. Almost half (49 percent) see spyware as a threat, an estimated 93-million Americans had computer problems in the last year that could be blamed on spyware or viruses, 25 percent reported finding programs on their computers they didn't install and 18 percent reported that their Internet home pages had been changed without their consent.

Princeton Survey Research International conducted the phone survey from May 4 to June 7, interviewing 1,336 Internet users. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

While the survey indicated increased consumer understanding of the terms, experts suggest that people don't really distinguish between spyware, adware and cookies - the small text files that help identify a computer and customize Web pages for a user.

"A cookie is not necessarily a tool for using information about a consumer," said Cory Treffiletti, senior vice president, managing director, of Carat Interactive, a marketing firm.

He also co-founded, an industry Web site that hopes to come up with a way to demystify cookies and gain consumer confidence.

Cookies can help tailor surfing to a user's interests, Treffiletti says, or have information sent to the user based on purchases. Sites such as Amazon and My Yahoo rely on cookies to personalize their offerings.

"(Consumers) need to understand that there are real consumer benefits in return for advertisers to understand a little bit about the consumer in an unidentifiable way," he said.

Carat's clients avoid spyware and the firm does not recommend that clients use it. But, Treffiletti says, it is just one of the issues facing the marketing industry and advertisers.

For one, consumers are being overwhelmed by ads everywhere they turn, not just online, and advertisers have to be wary of damaging their images.

"All advertising is in jeopardy of not being as effective as it once was," Treffiletti said, adding that the industry has to have a dialogue with consumers. "You can't take advantage of the consumer. You can't give them false information. You have to build some level of trust with them."

To get to that point, consumers want more information. For example, 80 percent want more information before they download adware. Yet only 30 percent say they always read user agreements, privacy statements or other disclaimers, and only 25 percent say they do so online.

Part of the problem, though, is that the information often is hard to find online or buried in a legal document called an end user license agreement.

Claria, a major adware company that has been criticized its practices, says it has changed its ways.

"Consumers shouldn't have to go hunt for disclosure of that nature," said Reed Freeman, chief privacy officer of Claria. "Adware companies that are interested in broad consumer acceptance ought to be putting their disclosures in the download process as they are getting the product so they can make an informed decision about what they're getting."

Gaining consumer confidence, says Ari Schwartz, associate director for the Center for Democracy and Technology, will require "better practices" from the advertising industry, better antispyware technology and stepped up enforcement for those who break laws.

Adware should have upfront messages to users about what it will do, including whether it will have a significant impact on computer performance, he says.

"The adware companies have had trouble doing that because their product runs at a different time from the software that it's installed with," Schwartz said.

And while the focus has been on the technological intrusions, he says, the companies that actually pay for this kind of advertising haven't been held accountable.

The fact that people are changing their surfing habits puts the Internet at some risk, he says, but it's not a crisis.

"We're not at the point yet where people feel they just don't trust the Internet," Schwartz said. "People are simply modifying their behavior, becoming a little more skeptical, not trusting everything that comes along. That's not a bad thing on its own."


The Pew Internet & American Life Project interviewed home Internet users over a month between May and June. Among the findings:

52 percent of home Internet users reported their computers had slowed down.

51 percent reported computer freezes or crashes.

25 percent found programs or icons that they didn't install.

18 percent had their Internet home page changed.

25 percent stopped downloading music or video files from peer-to-peer networks to avoid unwanted software.

18 percent started using a different Web browser to avoid software intrusions.


Center for Democracy and Technology:

Pew Internet & American Life Project:

[Last modified July 7, 2005, 01:00:11]

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