National Consumers League

Consumer group letter to FTC on unwanted software


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February 25, 2016

The Honorable Edith Ramirez, Chairwoman
Federal Trade Commission
600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20580

Dear Chairwoman Ramirez,

On behalf of the undersigned consumer organizations, we are writing to ask the Commission to hold a workshop to examine the factors underlying the troubling growth of unwanted software (also known as “potentially unwanted programs”) and its impact on computer users.

Unwanted software are programs that consumers install inadvertently, typically because the program is bundled (often deceptively) with another program that the consumer intends to install. A common form of unwanted software are so-called “ad injectors,” which can cause Web advertisements to appear where they are not expected (e.g. a weight-loss advertisement on a children’s website). In particular, we are concerned that unwanted software may disable security updates to operating systems, Web browsers or other essential software. This can leave consumers’ computers especially vulnerable to malware infections and raise the risk of fraud such as identity theft.

The Commission has repeatedly recognized the harm caused by unwanted software via numerous enforcement actions, its 2004 spyware workshop and consumer education materials. However, troubling data has come to our attention that suggests unwanted software continues to be significant concern for the safety and security of consumers’ computers.

For example, a May 2015 study by researchers from Google, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of California, Santa Barbara found that 5% of visitors to Google’s services—tens of millions of users—had at least one piece of unwanted software installed on their computer. Within that group, nearly one-third of users had at least four pieces of unwanted software infecting their machines. It is expected that fraud linked to unwanted software will cost businesses $7.2 billion in 2016, an increase of nearly $1 billion from 2015, according to the digital security firm WhiteOps.

Consumers benefit from the wide availability of free software. However, we fear that this benefit could be threatened given the growing scope of the unwanted software problem.

We therefore urge the Commission to convene a workshop to reexamine the problem of unwanted software and determine whether additional Commission action beyond what was proposed in the 2005 spyware staff report is necessary. Such a dialogue would also provide valuable guidance to Web advertisers and software providers who wish to support the continued availability of free software for consumers.

We applaud the FTC’s ongoing work to protect consumers from unwanted software. With additional focus on this issue, we believe that the Commission’s efforts will greatly benefit the consumers we represent. Should you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact John Breyault, National Consumers League vice president of public policy, telecommunications and fraud, at your convenience.

Kind regards,

 

Ed Bartholme, Executive Director, Call for Action

John D. Breyault, Vice President of Public Policy, Telecommunications and Fraud, National Consumers League

Katharina Kopp, Director of Privacy and Data Project, Center for Democracy and Technology

Linda Sherry, Director, National Priorities, Consumer Action

Marceline White, Executive Director, Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition