U.S. lawmakers vowed Thursday to pass legislation to stop deceptive software even though regulators advised against any new laws.
Both Republicans and Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee said new laws were needed to stop the proliferation of so-called "spyware" that hides in users' computers and secretly monitors their activities. At least three bills have been introduced in Congress to address the problem, with more likely to follow.
"There is no more pernicious, intrusive activity going on on the Internet today," said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "We really intend to do something about this."
At a hearing before the panel’s subcommittee on commerce, trade and consumer protection, computer makers and user groups urged Congress to address deceptive behavior, rather than ban categories of software. Citing a new Utah law, the groups said broad legislation could end up prohibiting legitimate practices and stifle innovation.
The proposed legislation also got a cool reception from regulators at the Federal Trade Commission, who said they already have the laws they need to combat the spread of spyware.
"The problem is not one of legal authority. It is one of developing and bringing a case in federal court," FTC consumer protection chief Howard Beales told the committee.
Beales said some spyware is actually used to help computer users. He and FTC commissioner Mozelle Thompson said it would be difficult to craft a law that would distinguish between spyware and legitimate software.
Thompson advised committee members to give the software industry a chance to solve the problem without new government intervention.
“We should give industry the time to respond," Mozelle said. "Self-regulation combined with enforcement of existing laws might be the best way to go.”
The go-slow approach infuriated Barton, who said he intends to push a spyware bill through his committee — and the full House — this year.
“You like this stuff? You’re the only person in this country that wants spyware on their computer,” he told Howard Beales, the FTC’s consumer protection chief.
Barton urged FTC officials to work with the committee to draft a new law “instead of trying to defend something that’s indefensible.”
Beales said the FTC considers spyware a problem, but wants to make sure that legislation targets deceptive behavior while allowing legitimate uses. Some proposed solutions, such as requiring permission every time a user downloads a new program, “would make the process of installing new software extremely tedious,” Beales said.
Members of the committee were unmoved by those arguments, however, and they questioned whether the FTC has done enough to stop the spread of problem. The dearth of cases brought by the agency, they said, shows that new laws are necessary.
Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., called it “absolutely astounding” that the FTC does not see a need for a new law “when we have hundreds of thousands of violations every day.” Inslee introduced a bill Thursday that would outlaw spyware programs designed to record Web browsing habits and collect personal data without notice and consent of the user.
Rep. Mary Bono, R-Calif., has introduced a similar bill requiring spyware purveyors to notify people before loading new software on their machines. The bill would also require that those companies identify themselves to computer users, and that the spyware be easily removable.
Sens. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., have introduced a bill prohibiting installation of software on someone else’s computer without notice and consent. The bill also would require reasonable “uninstall” procedures for new software.