Real upgrade comes with strings attached

Packages its top multimedia software and delivers a new level of personalised ads to its desktop applications. Invasion of privacy?

Coming soon to a desktop near you: the RealPlayer streaming media player, the Real Jukebox digital music player, and RealDownload for downloading music, software and more. It's an impressive product, but there are strings attached.

What we have done is put three best of breed products in a download package. We think of it as building your rack mount digital media center," said Rob Grady, consumer product manager at RealNetworks.

The tightly integrated applications suite is among the streaming media innovations being introduced this week at RealNetworks 2000 in San Jose, California.

"I think it's clear that in their quest for deriving revenue from ostensibly free software some companies are going to push the envelope as far as users are willing to let them," said privacy advocate Lauren Weinstein, co-founder of People for Internet Responsibility.

It remains to be seen whether users will complain at all. "Increasingly, users are just want be able to go to an application and turn it on," Grady said in an interview last week. "They don't want to hunt and gather."

The latest version of RealPlayer delivers 2,500 radio stations to the desktop, single-click access to programming from more than 100 Internet broadcasters, and a steady barrage of advertising.

There's more: Bookmark your favorite stations in RealPlayer, and they'll show up in RealJukebox. Click a name as you listen to a broadcast and get the artist's bio, links to videos, concert schedules, similar artists and shopping opportunities galore.

Beginning this week, Real's daily entertainment guide will tell you about new versions of your favorite software, new music, movie and video releases, and provide updates on every major league baseball team.

"You can see the direction we're going," Grady said. "If we have every major league baseball team on May 22, we could have every sport team six months from now, and every artist, and you know. Deeper and deeper personalisation is where we're headed."

Last fall, the company issued patches for RealPlayer and RealJukebox after a privacy expert discovered Real had planted globally unique identifiers (GUIDs) in its software to track users' habits without their consent. The new version of RealJukebox does not have GUIDs, Grady said. "RealPlayer does have GUIDs, but they are turned off by default.

We provide RealPlayer consumers the ability to turn them on at their sole discretion, as they enable users to experience content that requires authentication for pay-per-view or similar type of events."

In a commentary posted to the Privacy Forum last week, Weinstein wrote, "This whole area of commercial monitoring of Internet user activity in various ways, both in "free" and non-free software, is a gigantic growth industry. ... Such software packages may entangle themselves into users' systems in manners that are difficult to notice, understand, control, or remove."

Weinstein was writing about a version of RealDownload bundled with a RealPlayer upgrade he downloaded earlier this month.

Without his having installed or enabled it, he said, the software attached itself to his Web browser, muscling in whenever he downloaded a file. And that was just the beginning.

He discovered the download application was collecting the names of files he had downloaded and sending the URLs back to RealNetworks.

Grady said the download application is completely optional for RealPlayer users and that, prior to installation, download users are specifically asked which files they would like the application to manage.

The licensing agreement makes it clear that when a download is initiated, the URl is anonymously transmitted back to RealNetworks, Grady said in an email. The reason is so that Real can return ads relevant to a user's query. Internet portals do it all the time, he said.

"It never collects personal information and, therefore, could never associate downloads with an individual's personal identity," Grady said.

"This means that any ad served when a user downloads -- or information logged -- is solely based on that single request. We have no historical information about any download that a user made in the past."

That may be so, Weinstein said, "But even when the information is all anonymous -- and I'm willing to grant that this is the case with Real -- users say, 'I don't care.' They just don't want this information flowing."

Weinstein conceded that Real had disclosed its practices. But after his concerns were posted on Slashdot he said he heard from dozens of Real concerned users with experiences similar to his own. Apparently none had read the fine print.

"Should users read licence agreements and figure out privacy policies? Yes. Do they do it? No," Weinstein said. "To expect people to have the time, the interest or the expertise to read and understand all of the licence agreements and privacy policies that fly across their screens is unrealistic.

"The Real point of view is that since the data is anonymous, it doesn't matter anyway," Weinsstein said. "The party line is that people prefer targeted advertising. My view is that if users prefer it, why don't ask them first: yes or no? It's a simple question. No one wants to ask it."

Digital delivery has taken off in a massive way. We will download most things -- software, books, magazines... it's getting people to pay for it that is the tough part. Go with Todd Spangler to read the news comment at AnchorDesk UK.

What do you think? Tell the Mailroom. And read what others have said.

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