A member of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission Monday urged Congress to give the agency more power to penalize purveyors of hidden spyware.
FTC commissioner Jon Leibowitz said the agency should be given expanded authority to impose civil fines on distributors of the software, which often tracks computer users or triggers pop-up ads. It would be similar to the authority the FTC was given in 2003 to penalize computer spammers.
"The civil penalty authority Congress granted us in the (anti-spam law) gave our anti-spam efforts real teeth. Sadly, in spyware cases, we don't yet have that authority," Leibowitz said in prepared remarks given at a conference on the Internet.
Leibowitz, one of five FTC commissioners, gave the speech only days after the FTC announced a settlement with Zango Inc., major online advertising company whose software was secretly loaded onto millions of personal computers, according to the agency.
Zango, formerly named 180solutions Inc., did not admit any legal violations in the settlement announced on Friday. But it apologized and said it had relied too heavily on "deceptive" third-party affiliates.
Under current U.S. law, the FTC can go to court and ask that a company be forced to give up profits it made through unfair or deceptive practices. The agency used that authority to get Zango to repay $3 million as part of the settlement announced on Friday.
Leibowitz said the agency should have the authority to hit violators with additional, civil fines to deter spyware.
"If Congress really wants to enhance consumer protection in the next decade, it needs to come up with a consensus anti-spyware law that gives us the authority to penalize the purveyors of spyware who cause so much consumer harm," Leibowitz said in his prepared speech.
Lawmakers have introduced several anti-spyware bills during the last few years, but none of them ever gained final passage in Congress.
Opponents have raised concerns that such a law would define spyware too broadly and inadvertently outlaw other, legitimate software downloads, such as automatic product updates.
Leibowitz also said the agency should start "naming names" of the companies who pay for the ads that end up being delivered through spyware.
He said the FTC would move a step in that direction by sending out letters to advertisers who used Zango to deliver pop-up ads so that they "will know better than to advertise that way in the future," Leibowitz said in the prepared remarks.