The booming adware business is immersed in controversy. By enticing -- some say tricking -- users to download its software, adware vendors watch where people go on the Internet and dish targeted pop-up ads based on that knowledge. While the business has spawned major profits for its largest players, such as Claria Corp., it has also triggered numerous lawsuits and concern among legislators.
Ben Edelman, perhaps the unlikeliest of opponents for a $200 million-plus industry, knows this all too well. A 24-year-old law student at Harvard, Edelman has found himself in the eye of the storm. For over two years, he has tracked the proliferation of adware from his homebuilt computer lab, keeping tabs on the three biggest adware services, as well as on advertisers that market through this controversial vehicle. A fierce critic of many adware business practices, Edelman has appeared as a key witness in three important adware-related lawsuits, including this month's proceedings around Utah's law to ban most forms of adware.
It's a lot to juggle for a full-time student. On a typical day, Edelman returns from classes at 4 p.m. and spends the next six hours or so toiling on his adware research. Edelman's "lab" is tucked in the corner of his home office and consists of seven computers, with several flat panel displays. It's not exactly a pro-bono exercise. Having worked with nearly 20 clients, both as an expert witness and an adviser on adware-related issues, the job brings in enough money to pay Edelman's tuition and the mortgage on his condominium.
He recently spoke with BusinessWeek Silicon Valley Correspondent Ben Elgin. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:
Q: Why the major beef with adware?
A: No other software is more fascinating to me. It's a combination of the taking advantage of naive users and the adware companies making lots and lots of money. The problem that gets me most worried is tricking a user into half-hearted consent and then holding the user to everything purportedly covered by that consent.
Q: Adware companies are trying hard to differentiate themselves from "spyware." Yet you insist adware is a form of spyware. Why?
A: I've had to take this software off a lot of people's computers, and I'm 100% convinced that spyware is a fair label. You can clearly see that users are getting tricked. They're certainly not going to Gator.com [Claria's ad-serving software] and asking for this stuff.
Q: One common adware distribution method involves offering users a software download when they visit particular sites. It appears as an ActiveX security alert, but the software often has nothing to do with the site being visited.
A: There's no legitimate reason to use ActiveX downloads, other than for software that's needed to view the page a Web user is actually viewing. These downloads are just tricking users. Also, language in disclaimers can be misleading. License agreements need to read like official warnings, not marketing-speak and not legalese. Don't tell users they'll get "targeted coupons" and "special offers." Tell them what will actually happen -- pop-up ads.
Q: Describe your daily routine.
A: I get up at 6 a.m. and go for a run. I usually go to class from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Then, from 4 to 10 p.m. is my spyware time. After that, I'll study for my classes. I'd say I'm one-part detective, one-part software engineer. I actually enjoy the sleuth work. It's something I'm not half-bad at.
Q: If a user is fully informed of his or her decision to download adware, would you find it acceptable?
A: Even with users' supposed consent, there's also the problem of one company making money from the labor of others. Why should Gator make money by selling an ad on The Wall Street Journal's site, when it's The Wall Street Journal that built the site and developed the content?
Users have the right to install software on their computers, but they can't infringe upon the rights of others. For example, you and I cannot, merely by agreement between us, agree to defame someone else or to infringe on someone's trademarks.