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.