Microsoft sued over anti-piracy software

A few days ago, Brian Johnson, a computer user from Los Angeles, sued Microsoft over its Windows Genuine Advantage tool calling it a spyware program. A class action lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle, alleges that the software giant did not provide important details on the Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) update, which was introduced in 2004.

WGA is a special anti-piracy utility classified as a high-priority update and distributed through the Windows Update service. Its main purpose is to check whether the user’s copy of the Microsoft Windows operating system is legitimate. WGA was and remains a necessity for installing new Microsoft software such as Windows Defender (Beta 2).

WGA was meant to reduce software piracy. More than one year of its operation was a success for Microsoft. However, according to the lawsuit, and also reputable experts, beginning in April, 2006, Microsoft “dramatically expanded the purpose, nature, and functionality of WGA”. The anti-piracy tool began gathering information on user computer and transferring this data back to Microsoft. Furthermore, WGA received an additional “phone home” function used to contact its developer every day, on every system startup.

Microsoft did not provide any details on new WGA functionality. Experts have confirmed the presence of new WGA features only in June, 2006. All this time millions of users around the world had no idea that legitimate Microsoft software is acting very similarly to spyware.

The lawsuit of Brian Johnson sparked numerous discussions over WGA and its spyware-like behavior. More and more people say that the software giant has violated anti-spyware and consumer protection laws. Microsoft spokesmen deny that WGA is spyware and call the lawsuit “baseless”. Nevertheless, the company has published instructions for disabling undisclosed WGA functions. The latest version of WGA no longer transfers any information to Microsoft.

The outcome of the lawsuit over WGA should be very interesting. It may establish a precedent. We can only guess. But, as David Fish, a lawyer at the Collins Law Firm, writes, “one thing is clear: Consumers must be provided with clear informed consent when software is installed on their computers. Anything less is unacceptable.” Hard to disagree.