The U.S. House of Representatives voted late Tuesday to restrict some of the most deceptive forms of spyware.
By a 399-1 vote, House members approved legislation prohibiting "taking control" of a computer, surreptitiously modifying a Web browser's home page, or disabling antivirus software without proper authorization.
The Spy Act would also create a complicated set of rules governing software capable of transmitting information across the Internet. It would give the Federal Trade Commission authority to police violations of the law and to levy fines of up to $3 million in the most pernicious cases.
"The rapid proliferation of spyware has become a common menace to computer users," said Rep. Mary Bono, R-Calif., one of the architects of the measure. "The passage of the Spy Act today is a victory for consumers, as they are one step closer to taking back control of their own PCs."
During the floor discussion, Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., warned that Americans' computers are "no longer their own and they can't figure out why."
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Some businesses had opposed earlier versions of the Spy Act, saying that though they were against spyware, the bill was so broadly drafted it could imperil legitimate software as well. The Energy and Commerce Committee responded on Monday by making some last-minute changes before the vote.
A similar bill is pending in the Senate. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to key senators on Sept. 21 saying their proposal was "extremely overbroad" and could "stifle e-commerce and open up legitimate businesses to immense legal liabilities."
EarthLink said Wednesday that a scan of 3 million computer systems over nine months found 83 million instances of spyware. Spyware programs hide in PCs and secretly monitor user activity. Typically, spyware arrives bundled with freeware or shareware, or through e-mail or instant messages. The programs are difficult to remove and may cause computers to run slowly or even crash.
Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, a vocal libertarian who frequently says the federal government should not be policing the Internet, was the lone dissenter.