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Of Corporations, Privacy, and Open Source Software

Mar 07, 1999, 11:01 (14 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Paul Ferris)

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The following editorial was written by Linux Today reader Paul Ferris.

A recent article in the NY Times suggests misleadingly that Microsoft has never totally understood the potential devastating effects of some of it's actions. The problem: A registration wizard broadcasts to Microsoft key data that could potentially threaten individual privacy. Microsoft, if you haven't read the article, has decided that it's wise to stop this behavior. They announced yesterday that they will modify this feature.

Privacy groups, awakened by the Pentium III processor serial number, were incensed at the idea. You have to wonder how incensed they are going to be when they realize that Microsoft has really known about this problem since July 26, 1995. More likely, sooner than that. The date is clear, since that was the day that Ralph Nader wrote President Clinton about this very subject, and also the bundling of MSN with Windows 95.

Hit the link above, and you can read it for yourself. After you do, you may have a lot of questions, such as "How come they are willing to change this now, after almost 4 years?", or "Why didn't they do something about this back then?".

The answers are only speculation, but here are a couple of theories. First, the Redmondites are probably experiencing some of the heaviest pressure to conform to social morals than ever before.

It's amazing that opinion pieces are written about why they are losing the DOJ trial that is currently in recess. Everyone has theories there, too, but the most basic one is overlooked: This is really the first time that their practices have ever gotten close scrutiny. Everything else has been for the most part preliminary investigations or out of court settlements.

When you do bad
things, and you
can cover them up
with virtually no
retribution, you
have no incentive
to change your behavior.

When you do bad things, and you can cover them up with virtually no retribution, you have no incentive to change your behavior. Think, for example, of the 1995 consent decree. Now, for the first time in it's corporate existence, Microsoft has realized that there is a bottom to the barrel. Those laws exist for a reason, and if you make the public angry enough, you will get there. They see that they are not immortal and omnipotent. They see for the first time that playing fair is a positive trait, if it lets you continue in your current line of work.

But that's not all. Microsoft looked over the fence, and saw that the Pentium serial number fiasco was a bad thing for Intel. They want none of that kind of stigma attached to them. They can't afford the public relations hit that Intel took over it. Especially not right now.

Intel got a pretty good thrashing over the incident, and a lot of people have mistakenly taken the stance that this is a new idea for them too. Intel is not the first company to implement serial numbers on processors. It's actually quite common on business class workstations.

But they have the largest share of chips on home computers - and they were the first to attempt to implement the idea in that market. They learned that some common business tactics don't apply to the home marketplace. People are ever more concerned about privacy. And this is as it should be.

There are no laws to stop these digital invasions of privacy. But it's hard not to see that both had extremely bad moral implications. People may not understand that proprietary software has locked them into a monopolistic market, a never ending cycle. But they can look immediately at these examples and see that some of the benefits give too much power to large corporations. They will look at these examples and ask who their friends are. They will question harm to the consumer, and possibly even question if the Windows monopoly has not been obtained at the cost of their privacy.

So why now? What has changed? How come virtually overnight the public has awakened to this skepticism of corporate entities and privacy? The answers to those questions are probably even harder to theorize. Possibly people are growing up, and viewing the Internet as something more than a place to hit the latest stock market numbers. People are restlessly asking for more privacy in an ever growing digital landscape, and they don't trust large corporations to provide that aspect. It's digital decentralization. It's a common thread possibly with the Linux movement.

And what of Microsoft, and their recent switch? Quoting from the article:

Bennett said the option to collect the information had been added to the software so that Microsoft support
employees would be able to help users diagnose problems with their computers more accurately. He said the
Redmond, Wash., software giant had never intended to
use the data for marketing purposes.
Do you really believe that?

Let's not go there. Instead, lets thank Ralph Nader and James Love, for having the foresight and strength to attempt to stop this in a timely fashion.

Like it or not, the OSS community is in an interesting spot right now. We are the last great hope for freedom in this digital age. Home computers should do what we ask, and only what we ask. Hidden aspects of computing provide large corporations with tools that are dangerous to personal privacy, and therefore, to freedom as well. The problems of proprietary software again rear their ugly head when this incident is examined.

Even if we can't know why Microsoft backed down on this issue, we can view this in another light: This is another selling point for Linux and FreeBSD.