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By Mark Ward
Technology Correspondent, BBC News
If cars were sold under the same terms as software, the chances are we would all be walking to work.
If cars were sold like software we would buy fewer of them
This is because almost every computer program is installed on condition that you accept onerous terms that you would reject if they were applied to anything else.
For instance, if your car was sold to you under similar terms you would not be able to talk about its poor mileage down the pub with your mates, and would have to get the permission of the car maker every time you changed radio station or another member of your family drove it.
And don't even think about putting car seats in the back for your kids or adding a roof rack - if you don't want to void the warranty that is.
The terms and conditions accompanying software go by the formidable name of the End User Licence Agreement or Eula (pronounced to rhyme with fool-ya) and though we have all seen them - typically you have to click a button to agree to them before you can install software - few of us take the time to read them.
Which? warns that this could be a risky strategy. It said that if you do not take a look "you could be unwittingly agreeing to terms that limit your right to compensation, or to a breach of privacy".
Which? looked at the terms and conditions hidden in the licences accompanying Microsoft Office, Symantec's Norton Internet Security and the Kazaa Media desktop.
Careful what you click when you install software
This revealed that the licences are written in confusing legalese that seeks to absolve the software maker of any liability for anything its creation does.
However, Which? also found that the licence agreements are often contradictory, weighted heavily in favour of the software maker, are many pages long (and often do not let you print them out) and obscure just what you are agreeing to when you hit that "Agree" button.
Ed Foster, publisher of the Gripe2Ed website that is campaigning for fairer Eulas, said a certain amount of damage limitation by software makers is fair enough.
"You cannot be 100% bug free," he said, "so they are saying they cannot be sued by anyone that runs into a little bug that could not have been found without an incredible amount of effort."
But, he said, many software firms use the Eula to shield themselves from any responsibility for their creations; try to limit well-established consumer rights or try to impose onerous conditions on the use of the program.
"They put us in the ridiculous situation where we would have to spend hours every day reading these things and be a lawyer to understand them and just to be a normal consumer," he said.
Use and abuse
Without cavalier use of Eulas to excuse the abuses of consumer rights the spyware industry would never have grown up, he said.
"The whole spyware phenomenon is based in part on their using these long Eulas that they know no-one reads to hide what it is they are doing," said Mr Foster.
Research by Harvard PhD student Ben Edelman has found evidence that consumers do not like sweeping Eulas that give software makers any rights they choose to claim for themselves.
Mr Edelman compared the extra programs bundled in with popular peer-to-peer programs.
Many of these extras bombard users with unwanted pop-up ads for services they are not interested in. If you are plagued by spyware problems then you might have contracted that infection from a peer-to-peer program.
Users are being urged to shop around for software
It is perhaps no surprise that those with the fewest hidden extras are the most popular among downloaders
But things are changing on the Eula front, said Mr Foster.
Working with a US lobby group called Americans For Fair Electronic Commerce Transactions (Affect) Mr Foster has started the "Stop Before You Click" campaign which seeks to educate users about what they are agreeing to when they install software.
At the same time US politicians are starting to grumble about software makers and have threatened to draw up laws that hold them liable for shoddy programs.
But, said Mr Foster, legislation will not solve this problem right away.
"The spyware issue is making people realise what is a real agreement, what is proper notice and all kinds of things like that," he said.
"It's an issue that's really starting to bubble up," said Mr Foster.