|Muddy Data, Vague Notice, & the Swamp of User Consent
by Eric L. Howes
Adware apologist Eric Goldman has been touting a recently released study [PDF] of users' responses to installation notice practices that, according to Goldman, "destroys many of the foundational assumptions of regulators and anti-spyware advocates about consumer behavior and psychology, thus highlighting how many current regulatory/consumer protection efforts are misdirected." Goldman, it should be noted, generally dismisses calls from the anti-spyware community for improved notice and disclosure during installation of spyware and adware. (Curiously, though, Goldman has been insisting that the anti-spyware industry provide better notice to users and adware vendors about the software their applications detect by adopting a widely accepted accepted, industry-standard definition of "spyware.") It comes as no surprise, then, that Goldman would warm to one of the primary conclusions of this new paper, which was previewed at the Boalt Spyware Conference in April 2005:
I agree with Goldman that this is an important and valuable contribution to the small but growing research literature on spyware and adware, and I would encourage folks in the anti-spyware community
to give it serious consideration.
On this page:
The study in question can be downloaded here:
In no particular order, let me first address some of the more problematic and/or noteworthy parts of this study.
Users are asked to play the role of installing software on others' PCs, not their own (4.1.2, p. 4). Users are never put in the position of having to take responsibility for the PC or the resulting effects of their installation decisions -- a burden that could significantly affect their installation decisions. We are always more careful and considerate when maintaining our own PCs.
2. The scenario itself tilts towards installations:
As presented to study participants, the scenario description (4.1.2, p. 4) arguably creates the unstated goal of installing at least some applications for the fictitious friend of the scenario. Installing no applications was apparently never explicitly offered as an option.
While this condition or situation may loosely resemble that of a typical bundled installation (i.e., an installation in which adware piggybacks on a host program that users are interested in or intent on intstalling), it certainly doesn't resemble one of the most common situations in which adware is installed -- namely, unsolicited, automated ActiveX installs that are sprung on unsuspecting users at third-party web sites. This installation context differs markedly from that used in the study, which had participants clicking on desktop links to initiate the installation of software that is presumably attractive to the scenario's fictitious friend.
Notice and disclosure in automated ActiveX installs is a critical issue precisely because users are not expecting or requesting to install software, unlike the scenario used for this study, in which users consciously initiate the installation of software packages that they may want. Moreover, ActiveX installations are presented to users in somewhat confusing and pressured circumstances (as compared with the deliberate, organized, and methodical environment of the study), and the software itself can be mistaken for browser plug-ins necessary to view content at the sites visited.
3. The study tests only traditional setup executables & bundled installs:
All of the software used in the study (4.1.1, p. 4) takes the form of traditional setup executables that users must deliberately download and then run to initiate the installation process. Some of these setup programs bundle one or more programs in addition to the main program (or host program) that users were interested in installing. These installations replicate but one type of installation process through which adware can be delivered to users' PCs. As noted just above, however, another common, though markedly different, installation process for adware involves automated ActiveX installs performed at third-party web sites.
ActiveX installations are significantly different than traditional bundled installs in several ways, including: the context of installation (user-initiated and requested installs vs. unrequested ActiveX installs); the actions performed by the user (a series of decisions and clickthroughs vs. a single click in many if not most ActiveX installs); the software installed (many ActiveX installs involve just adware and no functionally attractive host program at all); and the information put before users (ActiveX installs typically present dramatically less information by default). Given these significantly different installation characteristics, it is an open question whether the main conclusions of this study can be easily and completely extended to ActiveX installs.
4. One type of "notice condition" is faulty and misleading:
At least one of the "notice conditions" (the generic Microsoft notice; 4.1.3, pp. 4-5) is premised on incorrect assumptions concerning the "trustworthiness" of an application with respect to whether a publisher is "recognized" or not -- i.e., whether or not the applications were signed with a valid, unexpired digital certificate issued by a recognized CA. That an application is digitally signed provides next to no indication of the "trustworthiness" of an application, and validating a digital signature certainly doesn't serve as "notice" in the same way as the other forms of "notice" assessed in this study. Put simply, the participants of the study were fed bad data, and some participants even based decisions on that bad data (e.g., some users refused the eDonkey install and accepted the KaZaA install because the eDonkey publisher was not "verified" whereas the publisher for the KaZaA install was -- 5.2.5, p. 7).
5. Several minor errors appear in the write-up:
Table 1 (5.2.4, p. 6) is tallied wrong: 10 + 10 + 11 = 31 (total subjects in study), not 30 as indicated in "Total" row of the table. Similarly, the screenshot for Figure 1
(4.1.3, p. 4) is incorrectly labeled: pictured is the EULA for Weatherscope, not Webshots.
7. Application differences are not fully addressed:
The paper fails to discuss at length the differences between the key terms and functionality of the programs (e.g., which include adware functionality and effects that are generally disliked by users and which do not), only vaguely alluding to or briefly mentioning those differences in passing. In fact, these differences could prove to be quite important to understanding the results observed among user-performed installations. (To their credit, the authors note that the mix of applications selected for the study "could have influenced our results" [5.5, p. 9] and state that they "plan to perform a more controlled experiment on notice" [7., p. 10])
8. The installation data are ambiguous and of limited value:
The data on installation rates are muddied enough that they are of limited use. Table 2 (5.2.4, p. 7) appears to indicate that changes in notice (setting aside the erroneous assumption that checking digital signatures constitutes meaningful "notice") make very little difference at all in installation rates. Yet Table 4 (5.2.7, p. 7) tells a somewhat different and more complicated story.
Given the significant differences between the programs and their installation mechanisms and processes, the low number of study participants, as well as the problematic data fed users during one type of installation, how are we to draw any meaningful conclusions from this data? Does this study usefully and reliably measure what it purports to measure?
It is certainly true that the reported installation rates, when taken in sum, do seem to suggest that improved notice has very little effect on user installation decisions. Once we separate out the installations by application (as in Table 4) and start to interpret the data in light of what we known about the peculiar qualities of the applications and installations, though, a different picture begins to emerge.
9. Table 4 demonstrates the preference among users for non-adware programs:
According to Table 4 (5.2.7, p. 7), the most frequently installed programs were (in order):
Returning to value of the data and what story that data tells, we could argue that the Google Toolbar and Webshots installations are comparatively inconsequential, given that these applications include little if any functionality that most users would object to. Thus, we wouldn't expect that variations in notice would have much effect on installation rates. Moreover, the KaZaA installations are problematic because of the uniformly vague information provided in the various installation types. The eDonkey installs are somewhat suspect as well, given the problematic warning provided to users.
That leaves the Weatherscope installations, which do include functionality that many users would find objectionable (pop-ups, privacy effects). Moreover, Claria/GAIN EULAs tend to be rather detailed and involved (and Claria/GAIN programs tend to be digitally signed). Not surprisingly, the detailed "short notice" created from the Claria/GAIN EULA drove down installation rates significantly (from a high of 60% to a low of 27%).
Beyond the several problems discussed above, folks in the anti-spyware community will find much in this study that confirms what we have been saying for years. To wit:
Users hate pop-up advertising
Among the reported concerns of users, pop-ups ranked second:
Many of us have been insisting for some time that the effects of unwanted advertising of adware programs on users were being underrated when compared with potential privacy effects of these programs. In fact, contrary to the established PR mantra of the adware and advertising industries, which insist that "spyware" be judged and defined only on its PII data collection functionality and that the advertising displayed by adware is generally innocuous or even beneficial, the users in this study confirm what we have been arguing: namely, that unwanted, intrusive advertising is more important to users than the potential privacy effects of PII collection/transmission (60% vs. 10% reporting as a concern), and that users regard this advertising as highly objectionable -- in this study ranking it the second most important consideration (60%) after functionality (80%).
A side note on functionality being the top concern of users: I wouldn't make too much of this, as a user population that didn't regard functionality and features as the most important consideration in downloading applications likely wouldn't be downloading applications to begin with -- thus providing no user base performing downloads to study.
Users don't read EULAs and find them impenetrable
The study reports that users generally don't read EULAs (5.3.1, p. 8), don't understand them (5.3.2, p. 8), and have problems making any sense of them (5.3.2, p. 8), let alone even reading them (5.3.3, p. 8). This comes as no shock to those of us in the anti-spyware community, who have been insisting for years that users are unable to make heads or tails of these legal documents, that these documents simply cannot be regarded as useful notice or disclosure, and that they are largely useless for securing meaningful consent. Contrast with the adware and advertising industries, which for years have insisted that as long as they stuck a EULA in front of users they had provided sufficient notice and disclosure.
Quality of the notice matters
According to the study:
Again, this conclusion hardly comes as a shocker to members of the anti-spyware community, who have long decried the vague, euphemistic, near useless information provided in typical adware installations. As with so many other issues, the adware industry has generally dismissed these concerns.
Users are demanding better notice and find genuinely improved notice helpful
According to the study:
And still further:
Lord knows, folks in the anti-spyware community are all too familiar with these kinds of complaints -- we hear them every day while working with spyware and adware victims.
EULA/notice overload can be a problem
According to the study, "notice fatigue" can set in among users:
And that's exactly the reason we have been denouncing adware installations that blitz users with four, eight, even sixteen different adware programs in a single install process, putting endless EULAs and notice screens in front of users. That kind of installation experience simply encourages users not to pay attention and simply click through mindlessly, and yet the adware industry has been employing ever more oppressive multi-adware installs over the past few years, dumping dozens of adware programs on users in one go and insisting all the while the practice is legitimate.
Users can take advantage of provided notice to choose and evaluate programs meaningfully
Good notice is hardly without value. In a significant qualification presented just after the primary conclusion, the authors note:
This conclusion is an important one for it does suggest that users can benefit from well crafted notice and disclosure.
One aspect of this study that I found useful and noteworthy was the study's classification of users into several types or categories (5.2.2, p. 6) based on their installation strategies ("Once bitten, twice shy," "Install first, ask questions later," etc.). Users do take their own prior experiences and previously developed strategies into installation decisions, and we ought to be considering these experiences and strategies when designing notice and consent regimes.
Moreover, in following up on users' initial installation decisions to measure potential regrets (5.4, pp. 8-9), the study emphasizes that we should not regard information provision as a singular event limited to installation and setup -- that, instead, we should recognize that users are constantly in the process of evaluating their installation decisions and that their decision-making processes extend beyond the formal setup process for an application. All the more important, then, that we ensure users are provided with good information about adware programs in contexts outside of installation -- for example, in the design of pop-up advertising that appears on their desktops, or in the visible indicators of program execution that alert users to the presence and functioning of software on their systems.
Thus, even if I find the data provided in this study to be more ambiguous and difficult to interpret than Goldman apparently does, I nonetheless think this study a valuable one, for it effectively highlights the complexity of doing such studies of user behavior and provides a wealth of issues for researchers to pursue further.
Before closing, I should be clear about that fact the we in the anti-spyware community have never regarded good notice and disclosure as a panacea to the problems caused by unwanted adware and spyware installations. As this study highlights, user installation decisions are driven by a number of factors, and good notice and disclosure practices will never completely determine the outcome of users' installation decision-making processes.
Still further, our goal has never been to stop completely all adware installations, nor have we been under the delusion that merely providing good notice and disclosure would be sufficient to realize that enormous end. You won't find many "anti-spyware zealots" (as Goldman occasionally describes us) grumbling about freeware Eudora installs or losing sleep over the number of people downloading and installing the ad-supported versions of Opera or FlashGet.
We well recognize that even when given good notice some users will elect to install adware programs for any number of reasons -- they may actually want the programs' functionality; they may regard such functionality as a trivial price to pay for access to "free" content; or they may simply be so careless and impatient that no notice and disclosure provided during installation could have any chance of preventing them from clicking through installation screens at a breakneck pace.
No, the goal of the anti-spyware community has always been to ensure that users who could make use of good notice and disclosure get it, and we think that even if those users are a minority the effort will have been well worth it. Our philosophy has always been: "If users really want to install such programs and they understand what they're getting into, then so be it. But they ought to at least have good information on which to base their installation decisions as well as a fair shot at making those decisions in a reasonably non-coerced context. Still further, they ought to be able to employ tools such as anti-spyware programs to detect and advise on potentially problematic software they may have downloaded and, if they so choose, use those tools to remove software that no longer accords with their installation preferences."
Finally, I cannot help but note that in present circumstances -- which include, lest we forget, the rampant use of security exploits to force install unwanted advertising software on users' PCs, outright deceptive and coercive pop-ups and banner-ads that trick users into installing adware and porn dialers, deliberately obscured notice text (yellow-on-blue font/background schemes, keyhole scroll boxes, etc.), deliberately misleading and deceptive notice language (from slippery euphemisms to outright falsehoods), installation routines targeted at kids, and on and on -- it is more than a little disingenuous to seize on but one study with a such a small sample and muddy data and triumphantly declare that users don't need better notice and disclosure.
Internet users and adware victims deserve and demand better than that.
Eric L. Howes
© Copyright 2005 Eric L. Howes