WASHINGTON -- The chairman of the House Energy and Commerce committee criticized the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Thursday for not doing enough to halt the spread of spyware and vowed to pass tough legislation to thwart its use.

Joe Barton (R-Texas) also urged Congress to pass legislation this year in order to "cure this cancer on the Internet."

Consumer and privacy advocates are concerned about the growing number of programs that often surreptitiously piggyback on downloaded files, report back Internet traffic patterns to advertisers and generate unwanted popups.

Spyware is often vaguely defined and often confused with adware, but generally refers to any software that covertly gathers user information through the user's Internet connection without his or her knowledge, sometimes for advertising purposes. Most forms of adware, however, are installed with the user's knowledge.

The comments in the House came on the heels of a day-long spyware workshop the FTC sponsored last week, which concluded that the solution to thwarting invasive programs is less likely to be found state or federal legislation and more likely with more consumer education.

"I think it is very difficult at this time to draw a line around what is spyware and what is not," Howard Beales, the FTC's director of consumer protection, told the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection.

FTC Commissioner Mozelle Thompson added, "I think targeted legislation here at this time will be very difficult, if not impossible to define."

The folksy, tough-talking Barton, who replaced the retired Billy Tauzin as chairman of the Commerce Committee in February, disagreed.

"Let me just clue you [in]. Unless I'm totally mistaken, when we get ready to move this bill, all but a handful of the members of this committee are going to be supportive of it," Barton told Thompson and Beales. "I'm not a software expert, but I can count votes on my committee. I would encourage the federal officials at this table to work with us on how to clarify the language that helps you enforce the law, instead of defending something that is not defendable."

Thompson said the FTC already has laws to prevent the use of computers to spy on consumers. Last week, Thompson asked industry Internet provider leaders such as Microsoft, America Online and Earthlink to produce a set of best practices for the use of adware, including disclosure statements to consumers regarding what they are about to download.

"At the outset, I think I'd like to have a further conversation about what kind of practices fall outside what the industry thinks is fair practice," Thompson told reporters. "It seems to me there are some kind of practices that we may consider unfair or deceptive. We have existing laws to go after some of them. We have some powerful ones right now. We need to have a discussion, an ongoing dialogue, with industry, so they can also act partly as our eyes and ears."

Spyware Privacy Bills in Works

Rep. Mary Bono (R-Calif.) has introduced H.R. 2929, the Safeguard Against Privacy Invasion Act. The bill aims to protect individuals from unknowingly downloading spyware and requires that consumers be given a "clear and conspicuous notice" prior to downloading any software.

The bill would also require that third parties disclose their identity to the consumer along with their street address and a valid return e-mail address as well as specifically revealing their intent to collect and use the consumer's information.

A companion bill in the Senate, supported by Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif), is currently under consideration by the Commerce Committee. Barton said Thursday Bono's bill is the "beginning, not the end."

"Spyware is a technological disease that is proliferating each day. It threatens the efficiency of our computers and Internet services as well as the security of our personal information and private transactions," Bono said. "Software should never, I repeat never be used to spy on computer users."

Even when consumers delete the unwanted downloaded file, spyware often remains and continues to monitor the user's browsing habits. According to a report released last year by the Center for Democracy and Technology, spyware creates privacy problems, opens security holes and can hurt the performance and stability of consumer computer systems.

The state of Utah has already passed an anti-spyware law while other states are considering legislation that bars the practice. A similar groundswell of consumer complaints and state action prompted Congress to pass the country's first federal anti-spam law last year.

"Why not work with this committee to come up legislation to make it perfectly clear that [spyware] is illegal," Rep. Barton asked the FTC officials during Thursday's hearing.

"Then, if somebody wants that crap on their computer, they can opt to let it be," he continued. "I really don't understand why we are having a semantical debate about something everybody I talk to is totally outraged about. I'm moderate on this issue, by the way."