I was pleased to read earlier this year that Utah had passed a law explicitly criminalizing spyware. Although that law is currently on hold, perhaps it’s time for the US federal government to consider such a directive. (And consider the side benefits: The more time Congress spends debating Internet laws, the less time it has to discuss Internet sales tax. But that’s an issue for another day.)
I doubt I’ll get much argument from readers when I say that our computers have become cluttered over the past few years. For the first time in my 30 years in computing, I’m hearing the same refrain from friends, family, and neighbors: “My system has started to run really slowly.” A quick look at the local sources of autostart programs —win.ini, the Startup folder, and the nearly two dozen registry keys that contain instructions to start programs—often shows casino junk, spyware such as Gator, and other automatic programs that the users never asked for but got while installing legitimate applications. The last category includes programs such as realsched.exe, which RealNetworks installs on your system when you install RealPlayer. I find it irritating that just because I occasionally—very occasionally—need RealPlayer, Real thinks it’s okay to automatically load a program that potentially steals network, RAM, and CPU resources every time I use my computer.
Even though I know how to find and remove the registry entry that causes realsched.exe to run, the solution is only temporarily. The next time I run RealPlayer, it restores its irritating little friend's autostart capability. Software like this isn’t spyware, but it’s every bit as annoying. Nor is Real the only culprit. Installing Apple iTunes installs a bunch of junk designed to support my (non-existent) Apple iPod; installing Apple QuickTime brings its attendant never-asked-for programs—all dragging down my system’s resources. Perhaps that’s the best word for those kinds of programs: dragware.
Can this sort of junk be eliminated by law? Only partially. RealPlayer and QuickTime Player are free, so Real and Apple might argue that their dragware is just quid pro quo if you want the benefits their players offer. (iTunes, however, is a set of programs that lets you buy music from Apple, so the company can’t make that argument for iTunes.) But given most users' non-technical nature, I’d argue that any setup program that wants to stuff yet another autostart program into a user's system should first provide notice and ask permission. I’d also like to see that notice include a sentence or two explaining the program’s purpose, and I'd like misleading statements to be treated as fraud. (Can you imagine the explanations we'd end up with? This autostart application is viewed as necessary by our marketing people so that we can collect data on what you like, then annoy you into buying it.)
In fact, I imagine that intent would be the key to identifying unlawful dragware. Browser "helpers" intend to redirect you from your desired URL to another: a hard-to-justify goal. Gator usually installs as an undesired “parasite,” piggybacked on a useful or seemingly-useful utility. The intent? Simple: Collect mountains of marketing data from unsophisticated users who don't realize that they’re installing a piece of spyware.
Then again, maybe the answer isn’t to spend public money on criminalizing dragware. A better solution might be to educate users. If everyone understands how dragware works and how to avoid it, perhaps it will just dry up and blow away. If you have Windows XP, you can find and remove a lot of this stuff by clicking Start, Run; typing
and clicking OK. Go to the Startup tab to see a list of autostart programs and their location in the registry or in another place on the system. Msconfig lets you try out the removal of an autostart program; if you discover that you actually need the program, you can restore it with a click of the mouse. For more information about stopping autostart programs in their tracks, take a look at Windows Power Tools, "Autoruns," November 2004, InstantDoc ID 44089, and TOP 10, "Windows Program Startup Locations," December 2002, InstantDoc ID 27100.