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RealTime IT News

AOL Raises 'Badware' Flags

AOL might want to check the bottom of its shoes. StopBadware.org is the latest in a string of bad publicity the company has drawn.

The organization, sponsored by Harvard Law's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, among others, has labeled AOL 9.0 "badware" as part of an open inquiry into the free software.

In its report, StopBadware complains mostly about what happens when users install AOL 9.0.

Without disclosure, AOL installs the AOL toolbar and icons to Internet Explorer (IE), links to the RealPlayer homepage and the Real.com radio tuner, in the IE favorites list, as well as an AOL Deskbar to the user's taskbar.

The organization said AOL is wrong to update its software automatically and also to force users to take actions and thus interfere with computer use.

StopBadware recommends that users do not install the AOL software unless they are comfortable with the risks or until AOL updates.

The watchdog's remarks could be particularly damaging to AOL because it is crucial to AOL's revamped business strategy that users feel comfortable downloading their free advertising-supported software.

But AOL spokesperson Andrew Weinstein said installing AOL 9.0 is one of the best things users can do to protect themselves online.

"Users will be much safer using AOL than not using AOL. No company has done more to protect consumers from malware than AOL," Weinstein told internetnews.com.

"The issues are mostly smaller disclosure issues and things we already planned to address in the next version of AOL software," he said.

About a month ago, AOL announced an ambitious plan to cut its ISP business and billions of dollars in costs at the same time by altering its business model to become the next Yahoo.

Since then, its had to fight for its name in the press.

First, there was the transformation of positive news about cost cutting into a downsized reality when the company announced it was trimming 5,000 jobs.

Then AOL leaked search queries for 658,000 users.

The data set included intimate personal details and led to the firing of three AOL employees.

Then there was news of the company's dig for gold in the backyard of a convicted spammer's parents' home.

All this at a time when AOL's strategic shift demands good publicity to attract users back to its software services.

All this despite a slew of new and free services from the company.

Over the past month, AOL announced free e-mail domains, a new video search, AOL AIM Pro, and AOL My eAddress.

And just today, it rolled out a new music store offering unlimited on-demand streams and downloads of more than 2.5 million audio tracks and thousands of music videos, according to a statement.

Yet still, today is another day of bad press for AOL.

All of it has led to a tone of stoic optimism from AOL, because sometimes living an oxymoron is the best you can do.

"Clearly we have a lot of great things coming out of this company and consumers are learning about them," Weinstein said.

"We're excited about our move to make so many of our services available for free."