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180Solutions tries to shake spyware label

The accused spyware distributor announces a new program to stop distribution abuse and improve notification and consent.

Eager to shake off its reputation as a spyware pusher, 180Solutions has launched what it calls a new, more secure search assistant technology that will end distribution abuse and improve notification and consent. But one antispyware vendor says it's too little, too late.

Code-named Safe and Secure Search, or S3, the new technology is built to stop rogue distributors from using botnets, Windows flaws or other illicit means to fraudulently install the company's software onto computers without user consent, said Sean Sundwall, 180Solutions' director of corporate communications.

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"This last year, we've recognized the need to adjust our business model," he said. "Our model is totally viable, but with all the different distributors involved, it's more difficult to put in mechanisms so a few bad apples don't spoil the whole basket. We think S3 will help ensure more responsible distribution and will improve our notification and consent process."

The Bellevue, Wash.-based company said S3 is being weaved into all new distributions of Zango Search Assistant and 180Search Assistant. Sundwall said that while all new affiliates must distribute only the S3-enabled search assistants, existing affiliates have until Dec. 31 to switch over. After that, affiliates who distribute pre-S3 versions of the search software won't get paid.

A key part of S3 is that the company's 20 million active users will be regularly re-notified that 180Solutions software is on their computer, Sundwall said. "In June, we began re-notifying users that our software is on their PC, and explaining the software's purpose and providing simple uninstall instructions," he said. "We completed the effort in July, but the company will continue to notify every new customer within 72 hours of installation. And all customers will get a reminder message every 90 days."

So far, he said the rate of users who choose to remove them has been no different from any other time in the past, proving that users want their services. "If nobody wants us, we would have seen a stark uninstall rate," he said. "We'll continue to remind people we're on their computer every 90 days. We're comfortable doing that. It's incumbent upon us to tell people what our value is and to remind them of why we should stay."

He said 180Solutions is also using the legal system to crack down on rogue distributors. "We've terminated relationships with more than 500 of our nearly 8,000 distribution partners and turned away eight of every 10 new applicants because they're not willing to abide by the company's code of conduct," he said.

Sundwall noted that in July 180Solutions accepted a monetary settlement from Internext Media Corp. after suing the company for failing to enforce the 180Solutions' conduct code. And last month, he said 180Solutions filed suit against seven more former affiliates it accuses of using botnets to fraudulently install 180Search Assistant.

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Richard Stiennon, vice president of threat research for Boulder, Colo.-based antispyware vendor Webroot Software, has frequently criticized 180Solutions for what he calls its history of drive-by downloads, using ActiveX to drop adware onto systems without warning. "Legislative efforts have forced them to clean up their act," Stiennon said in an interview back in April. "Over three months, 180Solutions and Claria lost two-tenths of one percent of their penetration. As they are forced to comply with laws they'll improve their image and products. But they still must account for their past."

His position hadn't softened Wednesday, after looking over the details of S3.

"180 Solutions is finally acknowledging that their success and profits have come in large part from affiliates that install their 180Search Assistant toolbar without first gaining consent from unsuspecting end users," he said in an e-mail. "Since antispyware advocates have been pointing this out for over a year it's about time for this acknowledgement. The so-called security enhancements to 180's product to make it un-modifiable by affiliates is trivial and in my opinion should have been included in their product from day one."

He added, "Giving their affiliates until December to switch over to the version that requires consent demonstrates that even now 180 does not realize the pain and inconvenience their business practices have caused and continue to cause. Of course, in the meantime 180 will continue to profit from the nefarious practices of their affiliate network."

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