Each of the three spyware bills targets the nastiest practices associated with spyware, some of which are already illegal. But they differ both in the penalties they create and in how they define spyware.
It's those definitions that have some in the high-tech industry nervous. They fear that a bill designed to stamp out spyware could inadvertently put legitimate software -- such as the kind used to automatically update anti-virus and other software programs -- on shaky legal ground.
"One of the profound difficulties that we keep facing as we're talking about this is that there is a massive disconnect between what spyware really is and what is considered to be spyware," said Robert Cresanti, the vice president for public policy at the Business Software Alliance, which represents companies like Microsoft, Symantec and Cisco Systems.
"A likely scenario could put legitimate companies at high risk for what might be a technical violation of the bill without any ill intent," Cresanti said. The BSA agrees that anti-spyware legislation is needed, but the group wants to make sure that the final bill doesn't hurt legitimate businesses, he said.
Bono's Spy Act, which cleared the Energy and Commerce Committee by a unanimous vote March 9, would require companies to obtain permission before they install any program that collects information on a person's computer.
"We're much more concerned about that section of the bill. We don't think it's responding to an immediate need in the market, and we think it has the potential for some pretty serious collateral damage against an industry that is really burgeoning right now," said Trevor Hughes, executive director of the Network Advertising Initiative, which represents online advertising companies like DoubleClick and 24/7 Real Media.
Hughes said there are dozens of advertising-supported Web site features-- like stock tickers and personalized weather reports -- that could be affected under those definitions.
Although Bono's bill does not restrict the use of "cookies" -- the small tracking programs used by Web sites to maintain things like virtual shopping carts and other visitor-specific content -- Hughes said it could drag in many common programs used by Web operators to personalize the online experience.
"Web sites are very sophisticated commercial operations nowadays, and there may be 15 commercial entities operating on the same site," Hughes said. "If the consumer has to click through 15 different boxes saying yes I want this, no I don't want this, that's really going to impede the online experience."
Bono said the current version of her bill, which has gone through several drafts, addresses the concerns raised by the high-tech industry, but still provides protection to consumers. "We've tried to accommodate industry along the way. It's come a long way but [we've] been trying to walk that fine line between keeping the industry people happy and the privacy people happy. "