- The Washington Times - Monday, November 3, 2008

SHANGHAI

An anti-piracy tactic by Microsoft Corp. that turns some computer users’ screens black has set off a wave of indignation among Chinese consumers, posing renewed problems for the software maker in the huge China market.

In the week since Microsoft deployed an updated anti-piracy tool here, some Chinese have fumed about what they see as an invasion of privacy. Users of legitimate software have been turning their own screens black in protest. One authorized user complained to the police.

“It’s a crime,” said Beijing lawyer Dong Zhengwei, who filed a complaint against Microsoft with the Public Security Ministry. The ministry hasn’t responded. “The black-screen plan implies that Microsoft can hack all its users, not just the pirates,” Mr. Dong said. “That’s not fair.”

At issue is Windows Genuine Advantage, a tool Microsoft uses to assess, over the Internet, whether a PC has one of the pirated copies of Windows that flourish in developing countries. The tool was developed after Windows XP was released, but has since been added to updated copies of the operating system. The technology was built into Vista, the latest edition of Windows, from the start.

As the tool scans for pirated copies of Windows, it logs certain information about computers, notifies users if it detects illegal copies or counterfeits - and urges them to get a legitimate copy.

Windows Genuine Advantage has been in use worldwide for several years. The update that started to affect Chinese PC users last week did exactly what it was intended to do: get people’s attention.

Now when the tool detects a fake copy of Windows, it turns the PC’s desktop black, replacing the user’s background image. Although the user can override the blackout, it reappears every 60 minutes.

In all other ways, the blacked-out computer still works, thanks, in part, to an outcry last year. In Microsoft’s first attempt to step up notifications for pirated software, Windows Genuine Advantage crippled Vista’s snappy user interface and disabled other features. Microsoft backed down and settled for the blacked-out desktop as a compromise.

Users not yet affected can avoid getting hit by disabling Windows’ automatic update feature, although they then might miss security fixes. But for people who have already been detected as having illegitimate Windows, software patches to avoid the black screen are now circulating online.

Microsoft defended its actions, saying the company complies with Chinese law. It issued a statement promising its anti-piracy campaign would not be used to collect personal information. It is also offering steep discounts on some software to give consumers an affordable legal alternative, with home and student versions of Microsoft Office down to 199 yuan ($29) from 699 yuan ($102).

But that hasn’t mollified many Chinese computer users. Their outrage points to continuing problems for the world’s largest software maker in what is projected to become the biggest computer market.

While Chinese know their Internet is monitored and censored, that rarely creates a stir. The reaction against Microsoft’s black screen tactics shows Chinese consumers’ persistent belief that there’s little wrong with buying cut-rate pirated goods.

Knockoff software and electronics are rampant in China. Brand-name computers are sold by retailers with pirated software bundled in, helping to keep prices low. More than 80 percent of personal computer software in China last year was pirated, according to the Business Software Alliance, a trade group that counts Microsoft as a member. The worldwide piracy rate last year was 38 percent, and the rate in the U.S. was 20 percent, according to the software group.

It’s not certain that all users of pirated Windows would otherwise buy the real thing, and it’s possible that the presence of cheap pirated versions benefits Microsoft in some cases by helping to introduce people to the company’s products.

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