Critics: Ask Jeeves Silently Serves Software

Anti-spyware and other security software makers are saying the butler did it, claiming search player Ask Jeeves is installing software on users’ machines without properly notifying them or confirming their consent.

The issue has caused questions about whether the software and features Ask Jeeves is delivering its users is adware, spyware or otherware, but analysts agreed the improper notification about the software — reportedly hidden deep in a user agreement document — is bad policy at best, highlighting the need for more user awareness and an upfront approach from companies that may be cluttering PCs for their own advertising profits through partners and third parties.

“No one should install any software without telling the computer user before doing it,” Basex chief analyst Jonathan Spira told TechNewsWorld. “Burying it in a disclosure document that is not read by 99.9 percent of users is not an excuse.”

Innocuous But Inconspicuous

After several anti-spyware and other security software vendors — Sunbelt Software, Facetime Communications, Computer Associates, McAfee, Spybot, Tenebril and Trend Micro — highlighted the issues with Ask Jeeves’ software by listing them among their other adware and spyware programs, Sunbelt set out to determine more precisely what the problems were.

As a result, Sunbelt stressed that the Ask Jeeves toolbars — My Global Search, My Search Bar, Need2Find Toolbar, My Speedbar and others — were neither adware nor spyware, and were not malicious in terms of damaging customer PCs. However, the software will continue to be listed in Sunbelt’s CounterSpy database, and remain “problematic” because of installation practices and third-party advertising and distribution, according to a blog from Sunbelt’s Alex Eckelberry.

Unintended, Unacceptable

Sunbelt’s extensive study of the situation — bantered about by the companies involved and others for months now — revealed problems of somewhat sneaky and sticky software from Ask Jeeves, including a toolbar that could not be removed after its installation was canceled, and installation through Internet Explorer’s ActiveX controls, which Sunbelt said “can prove bewildering to users.”

Basex CEO Spira said the issues with Ask Jeeves’ toolbar downloads were likely unintentional.

“But it’s not acceptable,” he added.

Scary Software

Maurene Caplan Grey, founder and principal analyst with Grey Consulting, told TechNewsWorld that software that installs without adequate, upfront user notification runs the risk of alarming users while increasing calls to IT help desks and home user frustration.

“For the average user or even the enterprise user who isn’t always sharp, this is a thing you worry about,” she said. “We know it’s not spyware, but just because of the paranoia that rightfully exists out there, anything that happens that is out of the ordinary frightens someone. That’s a normal reaction.”

Grey stressed that the situation — for Ask Jeeves as well as other companies that may, through partners or otherwise, install software programs without “in your face” disclosure — would cause unwanted distraction or worse.

“Because it’s not blatant, full disclosure, even if you know it’s nothing malicious, it’s going to have an undesirable behavior on your computer,” she added, referring to pop-up ads and the like.

Partners Blamed

In response to the criticisms, Ask Jeeves director of Internet security and privacy Kirk Lawrence said in an e-mail to TechNewsWorld that the company “will actively investigate allegations made by Sunbelt Software against our partners to determine if they are in breach of our policies, and will take swift action if we uncover any violations.”

Lawrence conceded to reported instances of Ask Jeeves’ MyWay and MySearch toolbars downloading without consent, but stressed the practice was in direct violation of partner contracts, adding that his company “immediately terminated both relationships.”

“Any company that is determined to have violated Ask Jeeves’ guidelines — including spyware practices, unauthorized distribution of our products, or inadequate disclosures to end users of downloadable software applications — will be brought into compliance or terminated as an Ask Jeeves distribution partner,” Lawrence wrote.


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