Watchdog group warns against free AOL software

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The software watchdog group, run by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society of Harvard Law School and the Oxford Internet Institute, has opened a dialogue with AOL about concerns over the presence of badware, also known as malware, in the now-free AOL 9.0 software. Badware refers to software applications that try to download additional software with very little or no explanation. decided to investigate after their users have sent in complaints regarding the operation of the software.

According to the "open inquiry" on, the preliminary tests conclude that AOL 9.0 installs software and Internet Explorer extensions without the consent of the user, requires users to take certain actions, and it doesn't completely uninstall itself. The page then warns readers not to use the AOL software unless they're prepared to handle the risks involved.

The report clarifies its charges; for example it lists "RealPlayer, QuickTime, AOL You've Got Pictures Screensaver, Pure Networks Port Magic, and Viewpoint Media Player" as the software that is installed without notification. Additionally, the AOL toolbar, a bookmark to, as well as extra icons are added to Internet Explorer without consent. The report continues by noting that AOL coerces users into upgrading the software by a popup window that does not allow refusal, as well as automatically upgrades the software without allowing that option to be disabled.

AOL spokesman Andrew Weinstein claims that these problems are going to be addressed in an upgrade available next month. In the meantime, Weinstein claims that the problems are not malicious. "No one has done more to protect users from malware than AOL," Weinstein said. John Palfrey agrees that the findings of AOL are not the worst he's seen, but they should disclose more information about the software to users. When AOL was issued with an advance copy of the report, was "very impressed" with their response, and that they look forward to working with AOL.