Microsoft selling Spyware?

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Microsoft was hit this week with a lawsuit claiming that its anti-piracy software is, in fact, spyware, but called the action “baseless” and defended how it installs Windows Genuine Advantage validation and notification tools.

The lawsuit, which was filed Wednesday by Brian Johnson of Los Angeles in a Seattle federal court, asked for class-action status on claims that Microsoft’s WGA software mislead users as to its true purpose, failed to obtain consent before installing, and transmitted data to the Redmond, Wash. company’s servers.

“Microsoft’s actions violated state consumer protection and anti-spyware statues,” read the complaint. The papers cite California and Washington state laws that Microsoft has allegedly broken, including ones on the books in both states which define and ban spyware.

WGA, which just moved out of a pilot program in the U.S. and several other countries to take a permanent role in combating piracy, consists of two tools downloaded to users’ machines: one, dubbed Validation, checks for a legitimate copy of Windows XP, while the second, called Notification, displays on-screen warnings until the user ditches the counterfeit copy.

Last week, Microsoft bowed to customer pressure and released a modified Notification tool that dropped a heavily-criticized “phone home” feature; Microsoft also relabeled it as a “high priority” rather than “critical” update when it’s fed to users via Automatic Updates.

Johnson’s lawsuit spelled out a long list of WGA behaviors that supposedly meet the California and Washington state definitions of spyware.

“Microsoft effectively installed the WGA software on consumers’ systems without providing consumers any opportunity to make an informed choice about that software,” the suit alleged.

“[It] hid, misrepresented, and/or failed to disclose the true nature, features, and functionality of the WGA software to consumers.”

“The allegations are without merit,” retorted Microsoft spokesman Jim Desler. “It’s distorting the objectives of WGA and the filing obscures the harm of software piracy. WGA is distributed in a manner that is lawful.”

Nor can the WGA tools, by any stretch of the imagination, be considered spyware, said Desler. “WGA is not spyware. When you consider the accepted definition of spyware, that it’s installed without the user’s consent and has some malicious purpose, it’s clear WGA is not spyware.”

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