OpenCandy (OC) is a relatively new advertising product that more and more software developers are bundling with their programs. It can now be found in the installers of dozens of popular programs including FreeFileSync as featured here.
OpenCandy employs some controversial techniques in its operation and this has created some heated discussions in internet forums and blogs. Some say it is adware or spyware while others say it is just another legitimate form of advertising. Whatever, you need to be aware of this product and its potential pitfalls.
How OpenCandy Works
OC makes software recommendations to users during the program installation process. That is, while you are installing one product you get an invitation to install others. Users can accept or reject these download recommendations from OC; it is their call. Here's an example of how it works when you install the featured backup program FreeFileSync.
At the start of the FreeFileSync installation process you are presented with the licensing agreement which clearly flags OpenCandy as a separate agreement.
And here's what the agreement says:
If you agree to this you get offered other products to install before installing FreeFileSync. The products offered depend on what you already have installed on your PC - OpenCandy scans your PC to find that out. Here's what I was offered:
Not all implementations of OC work the same way. Sometimes the "install" or "yes" option is preselected. That means that users who just mindlessly click through the installation of the product they want to install will also end up downloading and installing additional products. How OC is configured depends on the software vendor; the developer of FreeFileSync in this case.
Harmless Advertising or a New Form of Spyware
Now to some readers all this may sound harmless enough but there is more to it:
- The recommendations made by OC are partly based on the products you already have installed on your PC. OpenCandy determines this by secretly scanning your PC without ever asking your permission.
- While you can elect not to download any of the programs suggested by OC you cannot opt out from installing OC itself; it is fully embedded in the installation process. The situation is made worse by the fact that some software vendors don’t even mention in their End User Licensing Agreement (EULA) that OC is included as part of the installation process for their product.
- If you accept any of the software recommendations made by OC then not only will that software be downloaded and installed but OC will also permanently install itself on your PC as well.
- Regardless of whether you accept or reject OC’s software recommendations OC will transmit information about your PC back to the OpenCandy Corporation.
- Some anti-malware programs including Microsoft Security Essentials and the excellent freeware Avira flag some products containing OpenCandy as adware.
The makers of OpenCandy have published some credible counter-arguments. They claim:
- Many installers from reputable companies scan your PC during the installation process to check for old versions, the existence of essential components and more.
- They also claim that OC installs nothing permanently on your computer should you choose not to accept any OC download recommendations.
- They state that any data about your PC sent back to OC is the kind of general information collected when you visit a website and contains no personally identifiable information.
They also put forward an argument that OC is not adware as it does not conform with the Wikipedia definition of adware as programs that display ads during program operation or usage. Using definitions to deflect the argument is ridiculous. OpenCandy is without doubt adware. Yes, it displays ads during product installation rather than product operation but the effect is the same. To claim otherwise is fatuous.
But there is nothing particularly wrong with adware. Many reputable products like the free version of Avira AntiVir and AVG Antivirus are adware. The product ads are the price that many users are prepared to accept in order to get the product for free.
Is OC spyware? There is little evidence to suggest this rather it seems to be just another form of adware. However it does worry us that the distribution model OC uses could potentially be used to turn the product into spyware.
In fact that’s the aspect of OpenCandy we find most disturbing. With the product now installed on a huge number of computers the current or future owners of the product could be tempted at some time in the future to more aggressively utilize the huge installed base. Can the OpenCandy Corporation or its successor be trusted not to exploit this opportunity? Will a hacker break into their system and create a huge botnet? Who knows; nobody can know but the possibility itself is disquieting.
The Gizmo’s Freeware Policy on OpenCandy
We thought seriously about banning any product containing OpenCandy from our website but have decided against that on two grounds:
First we have no evidence that OpenCandy is a malicious product or spyware. It is simply an adware program. Yes it is a product that makes us feel uncomfortable in the way it pushes privacy limits and even more uncomfortable with the potential for the model to be exploited but these are ultimately soft objections.
Second to ban products containing OC would deprive our users of the right to make their own choices as to the products they wish to use. Some of the programs that contain OC are of outstanding quality. If users wish to use these products knowing that they contain OC then we need respect that choice.
We have however decided to attach some strong conditions to products that contain OpenCandy:
- Gizmos’ Freeware will not list any program that contains OpenCandy in its installer and does not clearly state this fact in its End User Licensing Agreement (EULA).
- Gizmo’s Freeware will not list any program that contains OpenCandy that does not provide users with the ability to opt out of all recommended downloads.
- The presence of OpenCandy will be treated by our editors as a negative when preparing our lists of recommended programs. It will be left to individual editors whether a program’s features and other strengths are sufficient to offset the inclusion of OpenCandy.
- Where we do list programs which we know contain OpenCandy, we will clearly alert our readers to this fact.
This policy is now in place but it will take some time** for us to check every product and decide whether we will continue to recommend it. If you are aware that any product we recommend that contains OpenCandy then please leave a comment at bottom of the program review.
Now I know some people will consider these initiatives to be an over-reaction while others feel we have not gone far enough. What we have tried to do is balance the right of our readers to make their own informed choices about the products they use against the concerns we have about the OpenCandy marketing model.
What I can say is that we will keep the situation under ongoing review. Should the OpenCandy company show any indications they are moving their product in a direction that is not in the interest of our users then we will immediately ban all products containing OpenCandy from this site.
** To the best of our knowledge, all products listed here which contain OpenCandy have now been identified and an appropriate advisory added to the text. The situation is fluid though as some authors will no doubt remove it and others will begin bundling it with new software. If you discover an incidence of OpenCandy within a product listed here which is not marked as such, please inform us by leaving a comment on the appropriate page, or by contacting one of the mod team directly.
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