180solutions Tries to Clean Up its Act

UPDATED After filing suit against Zone Labs last week for alleged damage to its business, adware provider 180solutions has come under fire from all angles. The company has also been accused of letting partners slip its ad software onto users' PCs through illegal crack and porn sites. Now, 180 is promising to clean up its act.

On Tuesday, 180solutions announced it was ending the distribution of 180search Assistant and releasing Seekmo Search Assistant instead, which it says includes technologies to help reduce the number of unauthorized installations. Asserting its innocence, 180 claims its partners are the ones trying to defraud end-users.

The company's new Safe and Secure Search (S3) technology features what it calls a Closed Loop System (CLS). 180solutions says the additions allow it to track a "compromised" distribution channel and receive real-time feedback from users through the CLS.

180 can then message users informing them that the ad software was installed on their computers without permission, and offer a one-click removal option, the company claims. Customers can also choose to opt-in and keep the Search Assistant software on their PC if they so desire.

Zango Search Assistant, 180's primary adware product, includes the same capabilities.

"The real-time feedback provided by the CLS program cuts off the financial incentive for unapproved installations by allowing 180solutions to evaluate the legitimacy of installations prior to making payments to the partner," 180solutions says.

But 180's distribution model opens the door for abuse and sits in the gray area between adware and spyware, critics say. Because more Zango installations means more ads shown and more revenue, they note, there is little incentive to stop unauthorized installations.

Alex Eckelberry, president of security software vendor Sunbelt, says there are numerous instances of Zango being offered on sites with questionable content. He provides one example of a site with videos by a comedian who tries to get laughs acting as a racist.

"The company is marketing itself to websites that are not part of the mainstream (which is what they mean when they refer to the long tail of the Internet) and a relationship with a site like this, however accidental, is inevitable given their current modus operandi and distribution model," Eckelberry says.

In response, 180solutions acknowledges that while some people may be offended by the site, its videos also appear on iFilm. Sean Sundwall, director of corporate communications at 180, notes that the Tonight Show and Comedy Central also air controversial segments.

"Should they be skewered as well? I ask these questions because the mainstream media seem to write everything zealots like Alex say without asking basic questions," Sundwall told BetaNews.

"Our mission is to offer consumers free, ad-supported software and content that will inevitably include content that is horribly offensive to some but drop dead funny to others. We are not in the censorship game," Sundwall added.

180solutions also contends that it is cleaning house, and says it has terminated over 600 partnerships for non-compliance. The company asserts that in November it helped the FBI go after two companies illegally distributing its Search Assistant software.

"There's free stuff at Zango.com (a 180 site), like ZangoWeather or some Flash game. In exchange for these freebies, you get Zango Search Assistant and get a, umm, rich advertising experience. You know, I can almost jive with that. I can understand it," adds Eckelberry.

"But let's not forget that a crapload of 180 installs occur on sites that push an install on you that you don't actually need."

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