There’s always been an element of lawlessness about the world wide web. Once you’ve got your shiny new computer home for the first time, you switch it on and, apart from cursory instructions (which most people, it seems reasonable to surmise, ignore completely), you’re on your own. The life of the home computer user, however, isn’t often one of merely browsing the internet, taking photographs of your lunch and posting them on Instagram, and listlessly checking emails. Once you’ve got a home computer, there’s an almost irresistible urge to, well, do things with it, and not all of these things can be done with a fresh, clean installation of Microsoft Windows.
For those who need applications in order to perform actions on a PC that they might not be able to elsewhere, though, searching on the internet can be a risky business. Many applications can now only be downloaded using “installers”, which come with a host of other software that may be installed as well unless the user is exceptionally careful. This other software runs a range from “crapware”, such as next to useless toolbars for browsers, through to “malware”, which may allow unscrupulous types remote access to your machine. This software can, even at the best of times, be extremely difficult to remove from a machine, and it’s never put there for the benefit or convenience of the user. Such programs even have their own acronym – PUPs, or “Potentially Unwanted Programs.”
Whilst it’s unsurprising that such potential pitfalls exist – the Internet has a long and inglorious history of demonstrating all the worst traits of wild west capitalism – what may be a little more eyebrow-raising is the fact that these pitfalls can seldom be avoided, even by going to the biggest download aggregation sites. Websites such as Download.com and Sourceforge sit proudly at the top of many Google searches for third party applications, yet many of the applications that they offer come complete with installers that offer bewildering options for various unwanted items of software that run the full gamut of nefariousness. These can install unless the user is exceptionally careful about which boxes they tick and which they untick during the installation process.
In order to demonstrate how risky this can be, the website How To Geek recently ran an experiment in which they downloaded the top ten applications from Download.com and installed them all in a manner in which a PC user with little technological expertise. The results were in turn illuminating, frightening and hilarious. Installed anti-virus software picked up some but by no means all of the unwanted software concerned, and the article’s conclusion, that there is no such thing as a free lunch and that the buyer is the product when it comes to free software, is all the more chilling for the fact that we all know this to be true.
So why are websites such as Download.com and Sourceforge so happy to compromise their integrity in this way? The answer, as it ever seems to be in the modern world, is money. Sites such as these make up to $1.50 (around £1.00) per download, and the top listed applications on these sites have been downloaded millions of times. It’s a lucrative game, and those concerned have become highly adept at staying just on the right side of the law in this respect. The onus, ultimately, is on users to be very careful about what they’re downloading, what boxes they’re ticking and unticking, and what they’re agreeing to when confirming that they’ve read – or, out there in the real world, not read – in those infernal End User Licence Agreements that we’ve all scanned past in our rush to get what we wanted to do done.
So, what can the average home PC user do to try and minimise the risk of ending up with a host of PUPs on their machine? Unfortunately, the honest answer is that there is no way to completely guarantee that such programs will not end up there, such is the rapacious nature of the industry concerned. Users can, however, minimise risk through trying to download directly from producers’ websites if possible, through not choosing “quick install” should that option be available, through checking and double-checking every tickbox that they come across and actually reading End User Licence Agreements to see what they’re actually signing up to. There are applications which promise to manage this for you and some download aggregators are considered more trustworthy than others by those in the know, but reviews are patchy and opinions divided.
Alternatively, users may consider switching to from Windows to Apple or Android, which both have app stores with a higher degree of scrutiny over what appears there. These aren’t perfect – Apple hardware, for all the plaudits it receives, is expensive, whilst Android remains targeted at tablets and mobile phones – but they may be worth considering for those who consider their last PUPload to be a PUPload too far. It is the very malleability of Windows, a combination of usability and access to tinker with the back-end, that continues to make it popular with many, but this malleability has been exploited for as long as Windows machines have been connected to modems, and this doesn’t look like changing at any time in the foreseeable future.
To a point, the responsibility for this completely broken business model rests with us users. The truth of the matter is that a culture has built up around internet downloading which is a culture of entitlement, free of charge. Developers can’t be expected to work for nothing, and the duplicitous methods that we now see in the culture of PUPs is really little more than an extension of a desperation to build revenue streams that are reliable. Having said that, it doesn’t say much for the efficacy of software companies or download websites that they are prepared to follow a business model that seems systematically designed to deliberately confuse and mislead users. Such is the nature of business dealing in the twenty-first century. The phase “buyer beware” has never felt so appropriate as it does these days.
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