Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Wednesday 25/5/05For those who like their heroes in white hats and their villains in black, Microsoft's anti-spyware efforts are kicking up a disturbing amount of grey dust. Take today's story, that MS is trying to make it hard for spyware companies to take anti-spyware companies to court.

Wednesday 25/5/05

For those who like their heroes in white hats and their villains in black, Microsoft's anti-spyware efforts are kicking up a disturbing amount of grey dust. Take today's story, that MS is trying to make it hard for spyware companies to take anti-spyware companies to court. Spyware and adware enterprises are there to make money, and if you chop their bits out of software you're interfering with that. You're not generally allowed to target a legitimate business's lawful activities, and so such companies send in the lawyers.

But is spyware and adware legitimate? It doesn't take much of a walk in this particular forest to find the quicksand: what's spyware in one definition is demographic data gathering in another. That can be resolved by finding out what the user knew and agreed to, a task that is in itself remarkably hard. Do you know the details of the licence agreement for every piece of software you've used today?

The law is far too blunt an instrument of first resort for anyone in this game. It's a classic area for self-regulation, where people who create, sell and use anything that collect data from or try to change the behaviour of users should get together and decide what standards they want to follow. I'd hold out for a clear, non-legalistic explanation of what their software does to you and why as part of any installation process, together with unambiguous and complete logs of what it's done. If companies subscribe to a code of practice that has that sort of level of respect for the user, then they have a strong moral case that their business should not be interfered with by other software. If they don't, then who's to say that a high level of paranoid protection isn't appropriate?

Microsoft's attempts to cut down the legal noise surrounding the spyware wars have some points in their favour, but little chance of creating a saner environment even if they are accepted. Filters that set up tests for frivolousness can easily become part of the great American programme for full employment for lawyers. Far better for the industry itself to sort out what is and isn't permissible, as a first step towards sanity, and that has to start with taking the rights of the user seriously.