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AOL Software Slammed As 'Badware'

by Glen Shapiro,, New York

31 August 2006

The non-profit organisation this week warned that free software provided by AOL to its users may constitute 'badware'.

In a statement, explained that:

"In our preliminary findings, we find that AOL 9.0 (free version) is currently badware because it installs additional software without telling the user, it forces the user to take certain actions, it adds various components to Internet Explorer and the taskbar without disclosure, and it may automatically update without the user's consent."

Specific concerns raised by the organisation were that the AOL product:

  • Installs additional software without disclosure. AOL Software is bundled with a number of additional applications, including RealPlayer, QuickTime, AOL You've Got Pictures Screensaver, Pure Networks Port Magic, and Viewpoint Media Player. During the installation process the user is never clearly notified that AOL will be installing these programs.
  • Forces users to take an action. During testing, a pop-up box appeared a day after AOL was installed that said: "A new version of the AOL Connectivity Services software is available. Click Update Now to install the latest update." Since this dialogue box had only one button - "Update Now" - and there was no "X" in the upper right-hand corner, the user would have no way to close this box without clicking "Update Now."
  • Adds AOL toolbar in Internet Explorer.
  • Adds additional icons to default Internet Explorer toolbar. AOL adds two additional icons to Internet Explorer's default toolbar. One icon toggles the main AOL Toolbar on and off, while the other one pops up an inline ad from RealPlayer. The addition of these icons is not disclosed to users during installation, nor does there appear to be any way to get rid of the icons after they have been installed.
  • Adds to "Favorites" in Internet Explorer. AOL adds two items to the user's list of "Favorite" sites in Internet Explorer -- a link to the RealPlayer Home Page and a folder titled "Media," which contains a link to the Radio Tuner. The addition of these links to "Favorites" is not disclosed nor consented to during installation.
  • Adds AOL Deskbar to the user's taskbar. When the user restarts their computer after downloading AOL, additional icons appear in the taskbar. These are collectively called the AOL Deskbar, and include icons for AOL Mail and Instant Messenger, an AOL Search box, and a drop-down menu titled "Go" (this menu includes such entries as "Web Search," "Shopping Search," "Find Stock Quote," "Settings...," and "Help"). The installation of AOL Deskbar is not disclosed to the user during installation, nor does the user have the opportunity to consent or reject the addition of these icons to their taskbar.
  • Updates software automatically. The AOL Deskbar that comes bundled with AOL has an option in its Settings screen that says "Update Deskbar automatically." By default, this option is initially checked. Although the user does have the option to turn off automatic updating from this screen, it is not disclosed to the user during installation that AOL's bundled software may engage in automatic updating, nor are they asked to consent to this behavior. recommended that AOL make the following changes:

  • Disclose during installation all of the additional software that will be installed and seek the user's consent to their installation.
  • Do not force users to take actions by presenting dialogue boxes that cannot be closed.
  • Disclose to the user during installation that additional components will be added to Internet Explorer - namely, the AOL toolbar, new items in Favorites, and additional icons in the default toolbar.
  • Disclose during installation that AOL Deskbar will be added to the user's taskbar.
  • Tell users during installation about any software that will automatically update and ask them for their consent.

According to the anti-spyware and adware organisation, AOL is reviewing the points raised by the report.

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