I went to pick up a couple of CDs the other day, and when I got to the counter I got quite a surprise. The proprietor of the little local record shop was friendly as always, but as I got out my wallet he said: “Now, before I sell you these CDs, I need to check your computer hard drive.”“What?” I said.
“It’s my new policy,” he explained. “A lot of my customers are downloading music from the Internet, and that’s costing me a lot of money. So I have a new policy that before you can buy a CD, I have to check that you don’t have any pirated music.”
No, of course this didn’t happen. But it’s the picture that came into my mind when I heard of Microsoft’s new Genuine Advantage program. Before we can download updates to Windows, we will now be required to let Microsoft check our computers for pirated copies of the operating system.
I don’t approve of software piracy, but I don’t like this policy.
First, it’s invasive. Nobody should have the right to insist on searching my private property. If the police wanted to check my computer for pirated software — or child pornography, or whatever — they would need a search warrant. How come Microsoft doesn’t?
Second, it inconveniences customers, and particularly those who use competitive products. First, the checking process will add — admittedly not greatly — to the time taken to download updates.
For users running a Web browser such as the open-source Firefox that doesn’t support ActiveX controls, or whose systems are set not to allow ActiveX controls, there’s an added hassle. They will have to download an executable file, then double-click on it to run it.
For users not accustomed to downloading executable code, this will be a problem. It’s also questionable for Microsoft to do something that makes life harder for users of competitive products (although to be fair one should note that you can’t do much of anything on the Microsoft Web site with Firefox anyway, and there are other Web sites that don’t work well with Firefox).
Microsoft deserves credit for a couple of things. First, the company won’t insist on checking your software when you download a security patch. So apparently nobody will be denied access to security patches, even if they’re running illegitimate software.
Second, the company says it won’t prosecute individuals found with pirated copies of Windows — instead, it will offer legitimate copies if they provide proof of purchase — that is, turn in whoever sold them the pirated software.
Third, the check is anonymous, and Microsoft even has a privacy audit report from a German firm (paid for by Microsoft of course) to back that claim. Microsoft is not capturing anything that identifies the user.
However, there’s a slippery slope. Accept this, and the next step — say, checking the hard drive for pirated copies of Microsoft applications — becomes easier. What comes after that? Yes, piracy is a problem, but computer users should question this way of fighting it.

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