The Federal Trade Commission wants the power to punish and fine spyware purveyors.

The agency testified this week before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation that the power to invoke civil penalties on spyware distributors would aid in deterrence.

Eileen Harrington, deputy director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said enforcement options, such as seeking consumer redress or making the operators give up their ill-gotten gains, are not always sufficient. Many times, customers do not lose money, or it is difficult to quantify how much they did lose, she said.

Civil penalties would be a more effective deterrent, Harrington said.

The FTC addressed the committee as part of its consideration for the Counter Spy Act, an anti-spyware bill stalled since it was introduced last year by Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark.

Spyware and harmful adware are a critical threat to online security and privacy. It is wrong, and it must be stopped, Katherine McGuire, vice president for government relations at the nonprofit Business Software Alliance, told SCMagazineUS.com on Friday.

“While legislation is needed to fight privacy threats and to increase online safety, any new legislation should target bad behavior, and not attempt to dictate ‘good’ or ‘bad’ technology,” she said.

At a minimum, the use of spyware to steal personal information should be deemed a crime, said Tiffany Jones, director, government relations, at Symantec.

“As it stands right now, nowhere in the Federal Register is the word ‘spyware’ mentioned, nor the use of it to steal information,” she told SCMagazineUS.com. “So the most important thing is to make it a crime, first, and then develop penalties for committing that crime.” 

Furthermore, she said, users should have the right to opt out from having spyware programs downloaded on to their computers, and should be able to remove those programs in a clear and simple manner. 

“At a minimum, for any anti-spyware law to be truly effective in protecting users, any legislation should include these basic tenets,” Jones said.