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Companies, Universites Jointly Create Anti-Malware Site

A corporate-backed Web site being launched by researchers from Harvard and Oxford universities seeks to become a clearinghouse for Internet users on spyware and other malicious software.

The site, which Google Inc. (GOOG), Sun Microsystems Inc. (SUNW) and Chinese computer maker Lenovo Group Ltd. are underwriting, will ultimately identify purveyors of such programs by name and provide information to help consumers decide whether a program is safe to download.

"It's important for users to understand what risks they face and try to help them identify which software is likely to be problematic," said Vint Cerf, Google's chief Internet evangelist and one of the Internet's chief inventors.

The nonprofit Consumer Reports WebWatch is serving as an unpaid adviser.

According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, Internet users have become more cautious online because of worries about spyware and adware, which can sneak onto computers, bombard users with pop-up ads and drain processing power to the point of rendering computers unusable.

Cerf said such annoyances threaten the growth of the Internet — and of his company.

It is not entirely clear how the new effort, to be available Wednesday at StopBadware.org, will differ from resources already available through the Web sites of anti-spyware vendors and private individuals, including former Harvard fellow Ben Edelman.

John Palfrey, executive director of Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, said researchers will post reports on applications that contain viruses and worms as well as software deemed by tests to be safe.

The first of the reports won't appear until at least late-February, with new ones added monthly, Palfrey said.

Initially, the site will post its criteria. Software developers will be told, for example, that the site will expose as transgressors any programs that exploit a computer "for any purpose not understood and affirmatively consented to by the end user."

According to Palfrey, the Web site will name not only the program's developers but also its distributors — and in some cases even companies that use such platforms to run ads.

The site, he said, will also identify any free games, screensavers and other programs known to attach spyware or adware to their downloads.

Palfrey would not say how much money each company is contributing other than to describe the project as "multiyear, multimillion."

He said the university researchers make the final calls and will be free to criticize software produced by the donor companies. The universities also assume all legal risks, he said.