COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | PHIL BAKER

Bah Humbug Technology Awards for 2004

Don't you hate it when companies treat you, the customer, badly? Well, these are my votes for what I'm calling the Bah Humbug Technology Awards. They're given to companies and individuals that don't demonstrate a giving attitude, at the holidays or any other time of the year.

Computer Grinch

Claria, formerly known as Gator, is in the business of loading your computer with adware and spyware. They're not some obscure third-world company; they're located in Silicon Valley, their clients include many of the Fortune 1000 and they are venture funded.

The software comes piggybacked onto free programs such as Kazaa, a music sharing software, and is usually hidden so the user has no idea that he's installing it. This is spyware that creates pop-ups, monitors your computing and sends personal information back to Claria from your computer. They then use this information to tailor its advertising to your preferences.

The software is almost impossible to remove. It doesn't appear in the add/remove option, but requires removing the software it came with, which is not usually apparent. While they may claim users only install it with permission, that's buried in a 5,936 word, 63-page license. No one reads that the program prohibits the user from removing its software using tools like Ad-Aware and Spybot, and prohibits the user from examining the personal information being sent back.

Claria has a checkered past. As Gator, the company was the subject of numerous lawsuits, for covering up online ads with ads from their clients, done without the permission of the sites. Think of Claria as the Grinch that wants to steal your computer.

Customer disservice

Symantec (Nasdaq: SYMC), makers of the Norton Anti-Virus program, has developed one of the worst reputations among software companies for the way they treat their customers.

They regularly obsolete their software, requiring you to buy a newer version. One user reported that she recently renewed her 2003 version for a year, only to be told three months later it was no longer useable and that she needed to buy the 2005 version. It took her weeks of fighting to get credit for the unused nine months she had paid for.

Symantec also prevents you from reinstalling the software more than once, even on the same computer. Users that have had their computers repaired find the software will not reinstall, even though it's the same computer. Customers complain that Symantec is unresponsive to e-mail and nearly impossible to reach by phone.

'Online chutzpah'

Seismic Entertainment Productions Inc., SmartBot.Net and Sanford A. Wallace, all related entities, use a security hole in Microsoft Internet Explorer to install intrusive spyware on computers, and then sell the victims their anti-spyware software.

Here's how one of their scams work. Once installed, the spyware opens the ROM and displays the message on the screen: "FINAL WARNING!! If your CD drawer is open you DESPERATELY NEED to rid your system of spyware pop-ups IMMEDIATELY!" Consumers who responded to the message were prompted to buy programs called Spy Wiper or Spy Deleter for about $30 each.

Lydia Parnes, acting director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, initiated a lawsuit against the company. "The defendants were selling software to fix the problem they just caused," said Parnes. "I've decided this is my definition of online chutzpah."

Bad suit

Another award goes to Barbra Streisand, for suing Ken Adelman. Silicon Valley environmentalist Adelman and his wife photographed the entire California coastline at their expense from a helicopter and posted over 12,000 photos on a Web site (www. californiacoastline.org), where the images are available for free. The photos, covering a total of 1,100 miles, document every detail of the coastline every five years to provide a resource to the scientific community to monitor environmental and physical changes.

Unfortunately, one of the 12,000 images posted on the site happens to include an estate along the Malibu coast belonging to Streisand. She sued the Adelmans for $50 million, demanding that the image and its caption, "Streisand Estate, Malibu" be removed from the site, arguing that the photo violates her privacy. The Adelman's argued that the photos are free speech taken from public airspace and are part of historic public documents.

Streisand lost the case and was ordered to pay $177,000 in attorney fees. But in the process, she promptly made that one image of her estate among the 12,000 the most viewed.

There are lots of other deserving recipients, but I have limited space. Perhaps in the New Year, more companies and individuals will think twice before trying to make a fast buck at the expense of others, treat others the way they'd like to be treated and put more value in maintaining a good reputation.

But I'm a realist, and expect more Bah Humbug Awards again this time next year.


Baker has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others. He is the holder of 30 patents and was named San Diego's Ernst & Young Consumer Products Entrepreneur of the Year in 2000. He can be reached at phil.baker@sddt.com.

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