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Microsoft's Anti-Piracy Tool Draws Criticism, Changes Planned

In addition, the software maker has come under fire for failing to make it clear to people installing Windows Genuine Advantage that the application communicates with Microsoft on a daily basis to do things like ensure that the Windows copy being used isn't pirated.

Antone Gonsalves

June 9, 2006

4 Min Read

Microsoft Corp. is being criticized for distributing its Windows XP anti-piracy tool in a way that may leave many PC users in the dark as to what they are actually downloading.

In addition, the software maker has come under fire for failing to make it clear to people installing Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) that the application communicates with Microsoft on a daily basis.

Microsoft on Friday acknowledged that it could have done a better job in explaining how the software behaves. The application is currently in beta.

"There have been some questions on this issue and Microsoft is working to more effectively communicate details of this feature to the public," a spokeswoman for the Redmond, Wash., company said in an email.

The company plans to change the settings of the application in its next release, so that it dials in to Microsoft every two weeks, the spokeswoman said. The call-in feature would be disabled permanently when the program is generally available worldwide later this year.

Microsoft's handling of the software's distribution has also raised eyebrows. People who have signed up to automatically receive updates for Windows XP have reported receiving notification of a "critical" security update that doesn't say it includes Windows Genuine Advantage until the download process begins. Once the program is installed, it can't be removed.

Joe Wilcox, analyst for JupiterResearch, experienced the install process, and said he wasn't happy with the experience.

"I'm somewhat dismayed by the tool," Wilcox said. "They could be handling it a lot better -- with more candor and more thought."

In its defense, Microsoft said people downloading the application are presented with an end user license that they can accept or reject. Choosing the latter will abort the process.

That process, however, fails to ensure that people will know what they are downloading, since most just click through end user licenses without reading them, Lauren Weinstein, co-founder for the advocacy group People for Internet Responsibility, said. A better way would be to recruit people separately for the WGA pilot and not wrap it into the regular Windows Update.

"You don't put it in the normal string of updates when people are doing the usual click-thrus," Weinstein said. "Asserting that this is the same as people accepting to join a pilot program is a little bit disingenuous."

Microsoft said the phone-in feature is to check for updates and is a kind of safety feature in case Microsoft has to suddenly disable the program. The latter scenario would occur if the program, for example, started to report pirated versions of Windows XP on computers that had legitimate copies. No other information is passed on to Microsoft through this feature, the company said.

The program's validation feature, however, does pass along more information, notifying the company whether a computer is running a pirated copy of Windows, and identifying the manufacturer of the hardware, and its settings for language and locale. The software rechecks the computer every 90 days to make sure nothing has changed.

The idea of a software vendor deciding on its own to monitor someone else's computer, and decide how it will handle what it believes to be piracy bothers Weinstein, who believes other companies could decide to do the same thing.

"The vendors want to have a continuing communication with your system, and the ability at any point to say, 'You don't meet our standards anymore, and we want to do this to your system,'" he said. "The issue is how much continuing control should a vendor have? This whole area needs to be explored and somehow addressed with consumer protection laws."

Microsoft launched the Windows Genuine Advantage program in July 2005 to "provide an improved experience for consumers using genuine Windows XP and to help Microsoft address software piracy," the spokeswoman said. The software was first tested in Norway and Sweden in November of last year, and has been rolling out to additional countries every since.

If the tool finds a pirated copy of Windows XP, users start getting a series of reminders. In addition, non-critical updates, such as the latest version of Internet Explorer, would be unavailable. However, users who have signed up to automatically receive updates would continue to receive critical security patches.

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