Three years ago the company was considered a parasite and a scourge.
Today it's a rising star -- selling virtually the same product. How a
pop-up pariah won the adware wars.
By Annalee Newitz
Back in 2002, Gator was one of the most reviled companies on the Net.
Maker of a free app called eWallet, the firm was under fire for
distributing what critics called spyware, code that covertly monitors
a user's Web-surfing habits and uploads the data to a remote server.
People who downloaded Gator eWallet soon found their screens inundated
with pop-up ads ostensibly of interest to them because of Web sites
they had visited. Removing eWallet didn't stop the torrent of
pop-ups. Mounting complaints attracted the attention of the Federal
Trade Commission. Online publishers sued the company for obscuring
their Web sites with pop-ups. In a June 2002 legal brief filed with
the lawsuit, attorneys for The Washington Post referred to Gator as a
"parasite." ZDNet called it a "scourge."
Today Gator, now called Claria, is a rising star. The lawsuits have
been settled -- with negligible impact on the company's business --
and Claria serves ads for names like JPMorgan Chase, Sony, and Yahoo!
The Wall Street Journal praises the company for "making strides in
revamping itself." Earlier this year, The New York Times reported that
Microsoft came close to acquiring Claria. Google acknowledges Claria's
technology in recent patent applications. Best of all, government
agencies and watchdog groups have given their blessing to the
company's latest product: software that watches everything users do
online and transmits their surfing histories to Claria, which uses the
data to determine which ads to show them.
Apart from plush new offices at the northern edge of Silicon Valley,
it's remarkable how little the latter-day Claria differs from the old
Gator. It's true that the company has toned down its most aggressive
tactics. Journalists, watchdogs, and regulators seem mollified. For
the most part, though, the company is in the same business as before,
courting the same customers and selling a product that does the same
thing in the same ways. Claria wears in a sharp suit and has a
scrubbed face and coiffed hair -- but it still looks a lot like Gator.
CEO Scott VanDeVelde doesn't deny this. "I don't feel like there's a
need to wipe the slate clean," he says. "Our technologies are dead
center of where the market is going."
The spyware wars are over -- and spyware has won.