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Another XP legal challenge

This time, the FTC will scrutinize the forthcoming OS. 01/08/17 ReleVents hed: Another XP legal challenge dek: This time, the FTC will scrutinize the forthcoming OS. By James Mathewson

I know I promised not to talk about Microsoft’s antitrust trial again, and aside from this sentence–a shameless attempt to get you to click on a past column–I will honor my promise. This column is not about antitrust, it’s about a recent consumer privacy challenge to XP brought by 14 high-powered advocacy groups to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Add privacy to the list of issues mounting against XP, including security, which together make it unlikely that Microsoft will be able to legally launch XP on time without modification.

The privacy complaints are too numerous to list (let alone analyze) here, but I can delve into two noteworthy complaints. The first is that Passport, an XP feature that is supposed to give users better control over their personal information over the Internet, may actually limit such control. The problem is that Passport information is required in order to register XP and, once entered, it cannot be altered–at least not until a patch is released in February 2002. Even with the patch, the privacy model will only allow users to opt out of information gathering, rather than opting in. While this is a serious issue, there doesn’t seem to be any legal teeth to it. Current privacy legislation making its way through Congress favors the opt-out model.

But one complaint does seem to have some bite to it. Kids Passport, which is included with the Passport functionality, appears to violate the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). COPPA is the strongest online privacy law on the books or under consideration. Among other things, it requires sites to clearly post their privacy policies and those of all of their affiliates. It also requires them to collect only information necessary for a child’s interaction with the site. The current design of Kids Passport does not allow it to meet either criteria. Gabriela Schneider, a senior policy analyst for the Center for Media Education, was quoted in the story. “Our investigation shows Kids Passport is not in compliance with COPPA,” she said.

The upshot is that Microsoft has a real problem on its hands with respect to the privacy issue. First, it will likely need to alter Kids Passport to conform to existing laws. If it releases XP early (as it intends to do) with the knowledge that the product is illegal, it could be in for a court battle. Second, even though the opt-out model employed by Passport may be legal for adult users, it will provide further reason for those users not to upgrade to Windows XP. Though the business community favors the opt-out model, consumers have demonstrated in poll after poll that they prefer the opt-in model. The only way to make Passport opt-in is to remove the need to enter the data upon registration. This is essentially what the privacy groups are asking for. Microsoft must change Windows XP before its planned launch to satisfy the law and its users.

James Mathewson is editor of ComputerUser magazine and ComputerUser.com.

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