Trust Us, We’re Microsoft

Have you read your EULAs lately?

If Auntie were a farm girl, she’d be madder than a wet hen this morning. (Do hens really get mad when they’re wet? Why?) Happily ensconced as I am on my little city lot, though, I suppose I’m madder than a commuter with no parking spot. What’s got Auntie distressed this morning? Why, the latest End User License Agreement (EULA) madness from our pals in Redmond.

I like to watch the occasional movie in Windows Media Player (no, not those movies—shame on you!) so I was a tad concerned by the release of the MS02-032 cumulative patch for Media Player. Apparently if you don’t install this patch, the Evil Hackers can log on to your machine, run software of their choice and generally make your life miserable. (Fabio claims the unpatched version also sends your home phone number to space aliens, but I don’t think he has any actual evidence.) I prefer to decide what code runs on my own computer, so I quick-like-a-bunny downloaded the patch and told it to install.

And there, in black and gray, was Microsoft’s latest EULA. Here’s the, um, interesting provision:

Digital Rights Management (Security). You agree that in order to protect the integrity of content and software protected by digital rights management (“Secure Content”), Microsoft may provide security-related updates to the OS Components that will be automatically downloaded onto your computer. These security-related updates may disable your ability to copy and/or play Secure Content and use other software on your computer. If we provide such a security update, we will use reasonable efforts to post notices on a Web site explaining the update.

Um, excuse me? Pardon me for reading legalese as if it were English, but if I click OK, I’m giving Microsoft permission to disable software on my computer? And it’s OK as long as it decides that this is in the name of DRM? And that Microsoft might let me know on some Web site somewhere (perhaps in a disused basement lavatory behind a door with a sign that says, “Beware of the leopard”) when it’s done this?

As far as I know, there’s never been a good deep-pockets, knock-down, drag-out legal fight over whether such EULAs are binding. Just to be safe, I clicked Cancel and uninstalled Windows Media Player. I’ve been using software from Microsoft for decades, but there are limits to my trust.

And speaking of limits, I wonder whether there are any limits to the extent to which Microsoft wants us to trust it? By now you’ve probably heard of “Palladium,” Microsoft’s code name for the next-generation security software and hardware combination that will protect your e-mail, whack viruses for you, handle digital-rights management and put out the cat at night. You’re forgiven if you’re vague on the details because, so far, Microsoft has been just as vague. The first round of stories in the press this summer were in the nature of trial balloons, deliberate leaks arranged by Microsoft’s crack PR team (which, somehow, missed briefing Auntie directly) to see what people think.

It’s hard to know what to think of Palladium, because details are scarce; but, apparently, it’s all about trust. Palladium will decide which software and content to trust, or it’ll help you decide, or it’ll lock out software you shouldn’t run—or something. But we should all just trust Microsoft to do it right. After all, it would never do something nefarious like, I don’t know, disable software on your computer without telling you, would it?

Auntie will be keeping an eye on this Palladium thing, and she’s trying to keep a somewhat open mind. Maybe we do need more trust in our lives. In the meanwhile, I’m going to go watch a movie—on the VCR.

About the Author

Em C. Pea, MCP, is a technology consultant, writer and now budding nanotechnologist who you can expect to turn up somewhere writing about technology once again.

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