Lately, several readers have sent me Microsoft End User Licensing Agreements (EULAs) for recent products and updates, wondering whether the language in these documents gives the company the right to examine its customers' PCs and gather personal data. Sensational news reports that quote sections of Microsoft EULAs have exacerbated the situation in an attempt to prove, once and for all, that all the company's talk about protecting user privacy is hogwash. As one reader noted just this morning, doesn't the wording of Microsoft's EULAs prove that the company is simply continuing the behavior that got it into antitrust trouble?
As is often the case, however, the truth is far less sensational than the conspiracy reports indicate. Consider a recent story in the "San Jose Mercury Times" that noted that the EULAs for Windows XP Service Pack 1 (SP1) and Windows 2000 SP3 force users to agree that Microsoft can automatically check the OS version and its components and provide product upgrades or fixes that will automatically download to the computer. According to the story's author, the agreements' open-ended language gives Microsoft the unilateral right to alter users' software.
But that's not what the EULAs say. In fact, I don't think the language is at all open-ended. Instead, the EULAs clearly describe the Auto Update feature, which, if users enable it, can in fact automatically alter software on their systems. But users have to first agree to that arrangement, so those who enable Auto Update want Microsoft to alter software on their systems. The Auto Update feature patches critical software bugs, silently and automatically. Personally, I want this feature installed. If you don't, simply don't agree when the system asks you about it.
A reader email regarding the EULA for Windows Media Player (WMP) caused me to contact Microsoft last week. The WMP EULA contains language similar to that discussed above, supposedly giving Microsoft the right to automatically download code to your system and alter the code that's already on your system. David Caulton of Microsoft's Windows Media Division told me that the WMP EULA refers to the product's Digital Rights Management (DRM) feature. "The idea is that in the event of a DRM security breech, when end users encounter new DRM content online, they'll be told they need to upgrade and asked whether they'd like to download the update," he said. "The EULA thing is a misunderstanding. Before any new code is downloaded to end users' machines, they'll be prompted and asked. They can say no. The consequence is that they can't get the new content." This DRM updateability makes the system more secure, a feature that content creators will obviously appreciate and that will drive acceptance of Microsoft's DRM efforts and media formats.
Accusing Microsoft of Big Brother-type activity is easy, but the reality is that both of these cases are more illustrative of end-user and media overreaction than a covert attempt by Microsoft to subvert your PC's software.