An anti-spyware bill could clear the U.S. House of Representatives as early as next week, but final legislation is not expected to be sent to the White House until disagreements about what qualifies as "spyware" are ironed out by key technology interest groups and lawmakers.
Spyware is a catchall term used to describe programs that stealthily install themselves on computers. Some versions -- often referred to as "adware" -- spawn numerous pop-up advertisements when computer users attempt to navigate the Internet. Other, more intrusive versions can track online movements, steal passwords and sensitive data, and give hackers control over infected computers.
Even the least-intrusive spyware programs can severely restrict an infected computer's ability to carry out basic functions like surfing the Web and word processing.
Experts say the spyware problem has grown to near epidemic levels, rivaling the problem with e-mail spam. Last October, America Online and the National Cyber Security Alliance examined the computers of 329 randomly selected Internet users and found that 85 percent of them contained some form of spyware. The average "infected" computer had more than 90 spyware and adware programs.
The research firm IDC estimated last year that people would spend $305 million a year on anti-spyware software in 2008, up from $12 million in 2003.
Three separate proposals have been introduced in Congress so far this year -- two in the House and one in the Senate. A bill sponsored by Rep. Mary Bono (R-Calif.) appears to have the most momentum, earning the backing of Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), chairman of the influential Energy and Commerce Committee.
"The consumer should have the right to know what's going on with their computer. It's their property and they should know what's happening. The bottom line is that people cannot install something on your computer and track you and eat up all the processing power on your computer without your consent," Bono said.
Internet service providers whose customers are most at risk to the spyware threat are urging quick action.
"Spyware is obviously a problem that affects virtually all Internet users. While the [Bono] bill will not be a cure-all, we support congressional attempts to counteract this problem. As was the case with spam we have to fight the problem on several fronts using legislation litigation enforcement, customer education and technology solutions," said Dave Baker, vice president of law and public policy for Atlanta-based Earthlink.
Defining the Problem
Lawmakers and lobbyists with a stake in the spyware debate agree that Congress is likely to pass a federal law sometime this year, though what that final language will look like remains up in the air.