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by Barbara Brabec
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Response to Barbara's Article, What You Need to Know About Spyware, the Alexa Toolbar, Free Software, & Anti-spyware Programs

A Spokesperson for Alexa Explains
How its Toolbar Works

(and why it isnít Spyware, as many contend)

by Kelly Dragoo
 Alexa Internet Customer Service

As a manager in customer service at Alexa Internet. Iím writing because I found your post on our Toolbar when searching the Web. I hope you will read my letter despite its length, for which I apologize. I also hope youíll pardon my largely colloquial toneóbecause Iím a customer service person rather than a PR person, I tend to be better at expressing myself casually, so I hope you wonít mistake anything in my message for condescension or insinuation.

First, Iím glad my search brought me to your site because itís nice to see. Itís hard to find articles written with minimal jargon on topics of interest to the general computer user or entrepreneur. You have a lot of information on your site that is accessible to those of us somewhat numbed by industry-speak.

Because I work for Alexa, Iím hoping to clarify a few things with regard to your article. Reading about your experience, it seems you had a lot of variables in addition to an entirely atypical Alexa Toolbar experience, then ran into some common misconceptions about spyware and Alexa with which I am, given my position, all too familiar. In short, I donít believe your browserís difficulty could have been caused by the Alexa Toolbar; I find myself talking to people on a daily basis who have actual spyware and mistake Alexa for the culprit; spyware killers are just as complicated as some of the spyware out there; and I wish I or someone else in our support department had been able to consult with you as this was happening.

The main thing that led me to know there was something else troubling your system was this paragraph:

Curiously, when I had tried earlier to remove the Alexa program from my system using the add/removal tool in my control panel, I got a message saying a certain file couldnít be found, so I couldnít delete the program. But the program finally disappeared from view after Ad-Aware removed all the Alexa-planted Rootkey files from my registry, along with all the other unwanted spyware files and cookies planted there by others. Iíve had no Internet Explorer problems since."

That is most certainly not by designóif Alexaís uninstaller couldnít find the file to uninstall, something else was definitely confusing things.

The Alexa Toolbar really is a tiny, innocuous download. It does what it claims to do and nothing more. As a member of our customer service team, I donít have access to a set of standard operating procedures for when we hose someoneís browser because we donít have that kind of impact with our download. The Toolbar and any registry entries that come with it do one thing: you visit a page with the Toolbar turned on, your browser asks Alexaís servers for information about that URL, and displays information we have relevant to the site. We are "The Web Navigation Service That Learns from People."

While most spyware out there has some goody and some secret tracking software, Alexa is erroneously called spyware because we are transparent about what the Toolbar is there for and what it doesóthereís no way to download and use the Toolbar without realizing that your browser sends us the URL youíre on and we reply with what weíre able to report on the site in question based on our crawls of the Web and analyses of our Toolbar usersí surfing habits in the aggregate. Because we have so small an impact on the browser, Iím certain your degraded performance was coincidental with your download of the Toolbar. Using the Toolbar could never wreak the kind of havoc on your system that you describe.

Your spyware killers found more than Alexa. Your mention that roughly a third of the objects it found were ours. It seems, then, that your faulting the Toolbar based on it having been the straw that broke the camelís back ignored the other two thirds of things that were not Alexa. One reason we can be reasonably sure of our minimal impact on system performance is that we know what we install, and itís been working with IE since 1997. If our product crashed peopleís machines, thereís no way weíd still be around and in such wide use today. Iím sure that something else caused the trouble with your browser, and Iím sorry we were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Because Iím familiar with one thing, the Alexa Toolbar, Iím convinced there was something else (or over a hundred somethings by your estimate) gumming your works, and this became apparent for some unknown reason coincidentally with your installation of the Alexa Toolbar.

As for the spyware label, itís a real pain. We donít like spyware ourselves, but it seems to be open season on calling anyone spyware. As for Alexa, I think if you download a Toolbar that gives you information about URLs as you visit them, itís not really fair to call that spyware. Most definitions of spyware talk about signing up for one thing and getting something else along with it that spies on youówith the Alexa Toolbar, you get one thing, and itís hard to imagine what one would think one was getting if not the relevant data as you surf. A key point made by many is that Alexa admits that if there is potentially personally identifiable information in a URL, that information may be transmitted to Alexaóbut by the time that gets spun into the spyware killersí descriptions of Alexa, it sounds like our software snoops all over your hard drive and into your passwords, none of which is true. If you think youíre getting a purple gorilla that will sing songs and tell jokes, and you get something else that reports your surfing to another companyís servers, thatís the sort of thing thatís clearly spying, whereas reacting to the Alexa Toolbar as if it were spyware, often seems to me like getting creeped out because my cell phone knows I dialed my mom yesterday: on the one hand, you anticipate such a transfer of information in exchange for enhanced functionality, whereas the purple gorilla is clearly snooping when all it claims to be doing is telling jokes. (And if this example doesnít bring a particular piece of software called Bonzai Buddy to mind, count yourself incredibly fortunate.)

A big problem we have with spyware killers like AdAware is along the lines of whoís watching the watchers. I can say I found this on your system and itís spyware, but at what point is trusting me any more prudent than trusting Alexa? As far as I can tell, this is an under-covered topic. Most spyware companies seem to get their definitions (lists of what spyware is and where it comes from) from one companyóany time we follow up with a company in an attempt to have them clarify their information on our Toolbar, we find out it has come from this one company. It doesnít appear there is any standard to which they are held in terms of what they identify, or do not, as spyware. Specifically with regards to AdAware, it would have found Alexa on your system had you never installed the Toolbar or visited our site. What it would have found is a registry key that works in conjunction with the "Show Related Links" command in the Tools menu of IE. (This feature, when selected from the Tools menu, opens what we call a Related Info Sidebar in the left side of IE and fills it with Alexaís data on the URL your browser is on. The total of Alexaís gain from the transaction is that we know someone using IE somewhere in the world requested information on a URL.) AdAware knows this, but still finds it when they scan, likely precisely because they know they can find it, and their bottom line depends on their finding things to protect you from. Not plain dealing, really, but they donít have to explain themselves.

Thank you for reading this message, and giving me the opportunity to present a different view of Alexa to your readers.

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