More Microsoft Larceny

My first computer was an HP Pavilion I bought in 2001. Later, when I attempted to install Linux, I found out that it was designed, in collusion with Microsoft, to run only Windows operating systems. I swore then and there I’d never buy anything else from Hewlett-Packard.

In 2003, Microsoft (together with IBM, Intel and HP) attempted to mandate the same kind of scam in all hardware sold, through the so-called “Trusted Computing” initiative. “Trusted Computing” would have created an industry standard for hardware, enabling third parties to ensure that only “authorized” code ran on a machine.

The goal was to make it much harder to circumvent Digital Rights Management schemes. Computers would be designed to lock out unlicensed or unauthorized software, including music or movies identified as “stolen” — perhaps even remotely deleting music identified as “pirated” — even if you obtained it via Fair Use as specified in traditional copyright law.

“Trusted Computing” would also have made it far easier to enforce a model of “continuing to pay to use what you bought,” rendering content that you’d already paid for unusable if you refused to purchase upgrades.

Fortunately, “Trusted Computing” never panned out. But there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Microsoft attempted to achieve the same goals similar through its design of Vista. It announced plans to make its software incompatible with unsigned drivers, and put hardware manufacturers on notice that their drivers would have to be approved by Microsoft. Although it was promoted as an anti-spyware measure, it would also have enabled Microsoft to mandate hardware standards that prevented DRM circumvention.

But that strategy was limited by the availability of alternatives to Vista. One could get a Mac, buy a PC with Linux installed, or just hang onto XP like grim death. And as we all (including Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, to his chagrin) know now, Vista went over about as well as New Coke because of its Nazi-like treatment of “unapproved” software.

Now Microsoft is back attacking things from the hardware angle again, in an attempt to avoid competitive problems by mandating its crap for the entire industry. This time, it’s working through the standards Unified Extensible Firmware Interface sets for PC BIOS. If adopted, the UEFI “secure boot” standard will be built into Windows 8, essentially locking Microsoft standards into all PCs with Windows 8 installed.

You could still buy a Mac, of course — preferably a used one, if you want to escape the dead hand of Steve Jobs’s “walled garden” model. But the UEFI standard could prevent installing “unauthorized” operating systems — cough cough Linux cough — in new PCs.

Whether or not it did would depend on whether vendors provided buyers with the keys to unlock the UEFI module and install a different operating system. It’s easy to imagine vendors in collusion with Microsoft (like HP) refusing to release the keys — in which case breaking the UEFI would be a digital copyright violation.

Also, how might this affect those who prefer Firefox to Internet Explorer, or would rather install Open Office than pay megabucks for MS Word?

After much dire speculation, Microsoft has issued assurances that secure booting won’t prevent dual booting with Linux or other free operating systems in Windows 8.

So once again, we’re spared — for the time being. But given Microsoft’s obsession with control, and its history of hostility toward open source, only a fool would depend on the company refraining from the abuse of such power.

Most importantly, none of this would even have been an issue if Microsoft’s tyranny weren’t enabled by the state’s digital copyright law. So long as copyright exists, we never really own anything we’ve paid for. We’re legally permitted to use the stuff we’ve purchased the way we want to use it only at the suffrance of the people we bought it from.

“Intellectual property” is theft.

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