StopBadware as Norm Entrepreneur

The StopBadware project, which is led in large part by the Berkman Center, has issued an “open inquiry” criticizing the design of AOL’s free software download. (The release has also been reported in media outlets including the New York Times).

Among the problems, according to StopBadware, is that downloading AOL also installs other software, that the program nags you to update without giving you an option to cancel or hide the dialog box, that AOL modifies browser toolbars and favorites without disclosure, and that it is very difficult to uninstall. These flaws would be maddening to most computer users, and are really quite shocking coming from a large vendor like AOL (even one that was already somewhat notorous for its bossy and inflexible interfaces).

Like all of StopBadware’s work, this is a fascinating example of internet regulation without the involvement of formal law. By doing serious, standards-driven analysis and then drawing attention to problems they find, the StopBadware folks can influence not only consumer behavior (don’t download that Jessica Simpson screensaver!) but even the behavior of software providers — at least when they are established companies like AOL and not fly-by-night spammers. AOL, surely sensitive to the bad press, is fixing the problems — already has fixed some of them — and is taking the critique seriously.

StopBadware thus demonstrates how the internet allows a nongovernmental entity to set up shop as a “norm entrepreneur,” someone who promotes certain normative choices by others (it’s a popular neologism in legal academia first coined, I believe, by Cass Sunstein here). As Larry Lessig famously observed, norms can regulate behavior (along with code, law, and markets). Promoting norms, as StopBadware does, is thus a powerful tool for governance. Its checklist of qualities that define “badware” may soon become the de facto regulation in this space.

2 Responses to “StopBadware as Norm Entrepreneur”

  1. Had not seen that Sunstein paper- thanks for the pointer. Sounds like the description fits stopbadware to a T.

  2. […] John Palfrey, Executive Director of the Berkman Center, has an engaging and illuminating post about the StopBadware project’s warning concerning AOL downloads (which I discussed here). It’s worth reading the whole post, which explores how, as his title says, “good companies sometimes release bad applications.” He goes through his own frustrating experience testing out the AOL software. Then he notes that, even if AOL fixed some of the most serious problems they documented, related to failure to disclose programs and difficulty uninstalling them, another problem would remain: Would it then add up to Badware, if all of these programs were disclosed and the user could go through and take them all off? Nah. But still pretty annoying? You bet. And is the average user likely to go all the way through this process of informing themselves and then uninstalling all these programs, loads of reboots, etc.? Honestly, I don’t think so. But let’s be clear: this is not just an AOL problem — it’s instead an industry issue, one related to bundling of applications. Do users really want this level of simplicity? Maybe. But maybe users deserve more credit: maybe users really do want to take the easy route OR to be able to install a subset of those applications. Maybe it’s possible within AOL 9.0, but I sure couldn’t find it. […]