How I stopped worrying and learned to love antispyware. For a long time, I’ve stayed away from the anti-spyware fight. I don’t like unwanted applications, but I’ve managed to keep my computers clean with a little care (and a little Linux), so why can’t others do the same? Worse, the tactics of some anti-spyware forces have made the cure seem worse than the disease: twisting copyright law to claim that adding an advertising overlay constitutes copyright infringement; mis-asserting trademark against those who list terms to which ads can abe associated; writing overbroad state laws that take control away from the computer owner, preventing users from using or installing software of their choosing.
I still dislike anti-spyware zealotry, but I’ve come to see that the higher-order consequences of spyware — the tactics of its opponents and the reactions of users who are plagued by it — are also problematic. A measured approach to malware can help avert those problems without distorting the law around it. That’s why I’m encouraged by the Berkman Center’s new Stop Badware project:
StopBadware.org is a “Neighborhood Watch” campaign aimed at fighting badware. We will seek to provide reliable, objective information about downloadable applications in order to help consumers to make better choices about what they download on to their computers. We aim to become a central clearinghouse for research on badware and the bad actors who spread it, and to become a focal point for developing collaborative, community-minded approaches to stopping badware.
The Internet has always been a playground of externalities. It’s useful to me because of what others contribute, so what makes it easier for others to participate increases Internet value. Consider blogging software. Technically, it’s trivial, a few lines of code to post updates to a web page and a few more to ‘trackback’ other sites you’ve referenced. Yet the “blogosphere” (the web) was far poorer when its only writers were those techie enough to write their own sites from the webserver up.
So by converse, when malware or its threat drives some people away from the Internet, it decreases the Net value for us all. We lose travel guides when those who introduce us to new sites stop exploring because they fear “infection.” Our social networks crumble when connectors stop opening email from unknown senders. And when our ISPs or lawmakers step in to “help,” they can make things worse, blocking legitimate applications that users have opted for.
The Berkman Center’s project, subtitled “Regaining control of our computers,” targets the weeds without razing the garden. It focuses squarely on the user, inviting people to contribute their experiences to a database, against which others will be able to compare new applications they encounter. Let’s hope it can help us to defend the Internet against both “badware” and its over-zealous opponents.