A proposed US law to rein in spyware, parasite programs that track a Web surfer's travels, has moved another step toward enactment.

The legislation, dubbed the SPY ACT, would require a user's permission before a program could be downloaded, and the sender would need to clearly state the software's purpose. It also prohibits hijacking of home pages, keystroke logging, and sending ads that cannot be closed by shutting down the computer.

The US House Energy and Commerce Committee voted 45-4 Thursday to send the SPY ACT to the House floor for a vote by the end of the year.

Defining terms

Much as in the war on spam, Congress is trying to fight the growing epidemic of spyware and protect consumers from invasive spying tactics.

Of ongoing debate is how to define spyware. Industry experts caution that a ban could interfere with positive applications, such as security patches, which often download without the user's knowledge. Such experts suggest clear definitions in the law to distinguish good applications from bad.

"I feel that we have fashioned a bill that is strong enough to protect consumers from spyware-related privacy invasions without impeding the growth of technology," says Representative Mary Bono (R-California), one of the bill's sponsors. "The committee has been working tirelessly with me to improve and refine this bill to ensure that what is put on the law books strikes the right balance."

Representative Jay Inslee (D-Washington) commends the committee on its dedication but says he remains concerned that the proposal "focuses too specifically on technology rather than behavior."

The nation's first anti-spyware law, approved by the Utah state legislature, has been blocked temporarily from taking effect due to online marketers' lawsuits.

Wide Support

In particular, SPY ACT's sponsors are targeting software that monitors computer users' actions and sends the gathered information to a third party. Marketing companies could use the information to send pop-up ads targeted to that user's interests. In more extreme cases, spyware may prompt more-dangerous invasions of privacy such as keystroke tracking, which could facilitate theft of passwords and identity.

"The overwhelming bipartisan passage of this bill denotes the seriousness of the threat spyware poses to our personal information," says Representative Joe Barton (R-Texas), who chairs the committee. "These provisions will protect American consumers from unwelcome tracking or hijacking of their Internet activities, and (will) bring to a halt an intrusive practice which affects every PC user in the country."

Bono's bill charges the US Federal Trade Commission with enforcing SPY ACT. The FTC would report annually to Congress on the number and types of violations.