Internet researchers at Harvard and Oxford universities have said they are seeking to enlist web users in a project to name and shame suppliers of spyware and other malicious software programs.
Organisers from the Berkman Centre for Internet & Society at Harvard and the Oxford Internet Institute said on Tuesday the Stop Badware Coalition will seek to spotlight companies that make millions of dollars by tricking web users into putting spyware, adware or other deceptive software on their machines.
The multi-year project is financially backed by Google Inc and computer makers Lenovo Group and Sun Microsystems Inc.
It is advised by US consumer advocacy group Consumer Reports WebWatch, its backers said.
Vint Cerf, one of the pioneers of the internet who now holds the title of chief internet evangelist at Google, said : "This is mostly a highlighting and warning and education project".
Cerf is serving on the advisory board of StopBadware.org. The coalition intends to solicit reports of malicious software from web users through its site at http://www.StopBadware.org.
Then it will issue reports naming offending products and companies in an effort to educate consumers.
Over time, project organisers said they hoped to team up with commercial security software makers to create automated tools to block "badware".
PC maker Lenovo is one of the
backers of the project
These tactics seek to go beyond lawsuits and efforts to work with regulators to use the power of publicity to expose what organisers say are the unethical practices of aggressive marketers such as Claria and 180solutions.
These companies have been widely criticised for spreading software that installs incessant pop-up advertisements on PCs.
Badware is a new, catch-all term that refers not just to spyware but to a broader class of malicious software, which once installed on a computer can open the door to viruses, worms, Trojan horses and other forms of computer attack.
One in six respondents to a survey by Consumer Reports complained they had been a victim of so-called badware in 2003-04, spending $250, on average, to repair computer damage, or about $3.5bn in total.
Organisers declined to immediately identify specific targets, saying they would issue monthly reports of their findings that name specific companies and provide consumers with tips on how to fix problems created by the programmes.
John Palfrey, co-director of the Stop Badware Coalition and director of Harvard Law School's Berkman Centre for Internet & Society, said : "We do have companies in mind but we are not going to name names off the bat."
"This is mostly a highlighting and warning and education project"
Vint Cerf, chief internet evangelist at Google
"The key message here is that we are putting every company on notice," he said.
The StopBadware website will allow internet users to check to see if software programmes they want to download from the web are infected with badware and allow site contributors to alert others to malicious programmes they have encountered.
The Stop Badware coalition is similar in certain ways to the Urban Legends hoax education site at Snopes.com, Cerf said.