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Who "owns" Your PC? 2 July 2002 Edition
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Chances are that the PC you're using right now cost between $1,500 and $3,000 of your (or your boss's) hard-earned cash.

You might think that you (or your boss) owns this PC -- and in the traditional sense of the word, that's true.

These days however, the word "own" has a new meaning when applied to computers:

own - verb - to have control of

If you think that you own that PC in front of you then you are probably very wrong -- or soon will be.

No, I'm not talking about hackers breaking into your PC and planting some frighteningly powerful trojan -- I'm talking about what Microsoft have planned.

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It must be conceded that for all their faults, Microsoft know exactly where the money is in this new hi-tech world -- and they've spied an opportunity that's too good to ignore.

They know that the recording industry is having a hell of a job trying to get to grips with new technology and protecting its products against piracy. It makes sense therefore, that if Microsoft can offer them a solution to their woes, lots of money will change hands.

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  • Have Your Say

    This is where Billy-G's "ownership" of your PC comes in.

    Billy wants you to give him permission to install whatever bit of code he wants onto your computer -- and also delete or disable whatever else he wants to that might already be on your disk.

    Using Microsoft's own words, here's what they want you to let them do:

    "...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."

    Yes, Billy-G wants to own your PC so that he can make sure it has the latest version of "Digital Rights Management" (aka anti-piracy) software installed at all times. He also wants to be able to disable any 3rd-party software you might have installed that allows you to play potentially pirated content.

    The quoted paragraph is from the Microsoft End User License Agreement (EULA) -- that thing you glimpse at briefly before clicking "I ACCEPT" when installing new versions of Microsoft's Media Player and other software.

    And don't count on Microsoft's definition of "reasonable efforts" when it comes to letting you know what it's done to your PC being anything like your own definition. After all, remember "trustworthy computing" when the company said it was going turn the company on its head in effort to rid its products of security holes?

    Stop and think for a moment or two about what this new clause in the EULA really means...

    Even if you're thinking "Why should I care? I don't plan to play any pirated music or video on my PC" -- don't get too smug.

    Reflect on Microsoft's absolutely appalling track record in the area of security for a minute or two.

    Chances are that you've spent a lot of time configuring and checking your PC so that all the (many) known security holes are patched. You've invested a lot of effort in creating the most secure system you can -- right?

    Now how are you going to feel when, without your knowledge, Microsoft comes along and potentially wrecks all that hard work by installing a brand new piece of possibly bug-ridden code as part of its DRM updates?

    Suddenly you can no longer be sure that your machine doesn't have the "hack me" sign hanging out can you?

    Then there's the issue of whether Microsoft even has a legal right to disable other pieces of software that you might have paid good money for -- just because Billy-G might think that they pose too much of a threat to Microsoft's own dominance in the DRM arena.

    No -- I think Microsoft has overstepped the mark this time.

    Although the legality of these click-through ELUAs have not been fully tested, I think the risk of having to wage an expensive legal battle just to win back control of your PC and run perfectly good software you've paid good money for is just a little too onerous to be acceptable.

    If you haven't considered the Open Source alternatives to Microsoft yet, then now might be a very good time to do so, before Microsoft forbids that too.

    The Gooey
    Lots (and lots) of Aardvark readers have emailed me to say that they couldn't check out The Gooey because they were using Netscape, Mozilla, IE4.x or some other unsupported browser. This has been duly noted.

    I will be offering my thoughts on this service in the next day or two but if you have been playing with it (you IE5.5 and IE6 users) then there's still time to let me know what you think.

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