Chinese users blast Microsoft over new 'black screen' piracy notice

Beijing lawyer files complaint with government, others rage at WGA update

An update to Microsoft Corp.'s antipiracy software has set off a firestorm of protest in China, with one lawyer filing an official complaint with his government and users raging against the move on blogs, media reports said yesterday.

Beijing lawyer Dong Zhengwei filed a complaint with China's Ministry of Public Security on Sunday, reported People's Daily yesterday. According to the state-run publication, Dong called Microsoft "the biggest hacker in China" and claimed that the update to Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA), Microsoft's anticounterfeit notification and validation technology, was in violation of Chinese law.

"Microsoft's measure will cause serious functional damage to users' computers, and according to China's criminal law, the company can stand accused of breaching and hacking into computer systems of Chinese," Dong told the newspaper.

The China Software Industry Association (CSIA), the country's software trade group, is also planning to take action against Microsoft, according to People's Daily. "It [Microsoft's measure] is very bad, and the whole industry in China must take it seriously," CSIA Director Chen Chong told the publication Monday. Microsoft's China operation is a member of the CSIA.

The furor stemmed from an update to Windows XP Professional that Microsoft began offering users in China last week. The new version of WGA's Notifications, the software that provides the messages and other on-screen prompts when another component detects an illegal copy, displays a black desktop on counterfeit versions of the operating system and a permanent nag notice in the bottom-right corner of the screen. Users can change the background, but it reverts to black after an hour.

The new black-screen nag took effect Monday in China.

Microsoft announced the change to Notifications in August, explaining then that it was bringing Windows XP Professional's antipiracy software in line with that of Windows Vista Service Pack 1 (SP1). Previously, WGA's nagging in Windows XP was limited to a message at log-on and periodic secondary notices that popped up in a small balloon. The desktop was not altered, and the software didn't put a persistent message on the screen. Windows XP Professional users in other countries, including the U.S., have already seen the update.

Chinese users railed at the change. "First of all, Microsoft antipiracy [has the] wrong focus," said Liu Peng in a post to the portal, according to a machine translation of the entry. "The fight against piracy should focus on the pirates."

Liu also said that Microsoft's timing was off and that if the software maker wanted to reduce counterfeiting, it needed to cut software prices even more. "A direct warning to the user cannot crack down on piracy, but in China, this method of time is not ripe," said the translated post. "Despite a series of price cuts, but due to the longstanding monopoly of Microsoft software ... some of the prices are still high, which is [why] the user [opts for] pirated software."

Others agreed. An online survey conducted by found 86% of 90,000 people polled saying that they wouldn't buy a legal copy because of the new antipiracy software.

"I respect the right of Microsoft to protect its intellectual property, but it is taking on the wrong target with wrong measures," said the lawyer who filed a complaint, Dong Zhengwei. "They should target producers and sellers of fake software, not users."

Dong's argument has been made before by American users, who have at times complained about WGA. In June 2006, Microsoft angered users by pushing a version of WGA to XP users via Windows Update, tagging it as a "high-priority" update that was automatically downloaded and installed to most machines. A year later, a day-long server outage riled thousands of users who were mistakenly fingered for running counterfeit copies of Windows.

The 2006 incident sparked a lawsuit that accused the company of misleading customers when it used Windows Update to serve up WGA. That case is ongoing; last week, a federal judge granted Microsoft's request to keep technical details about WGA secret after the company claimed that hackers could exploit the information if it were made public.

A Microsoft spokeswoman said the reaction is overblown. "It seems like they don't know how [the WGA Notifications update] is deployed. It's only installed after you've accepted the download," she said, responding to comments made by some Chinese users that they were surprised by the change. "It's possible they clicked without noticing [the Notifications license]."

The spokeswoman also noted that the recent update is not the first time that Microsoft's software has come with antipiracy protection in China. "Odds are, this was probably not the first time you've seen a [WGA] notification if you're seeing it now," she said, referring to the older Notifications software that displayed only a log-on message and other warnings. Microsoft had also warned users last week that the change was coming, she said.

Dong was unconvinced. "The authorities should take action to protect citizens' property and privacy rights," he told People's Daily.

Also last week, Microsoft began distributing an update to Chinese users of Office that displays a pop-up when it detects a pirated copy of the application suite. The company began a pilot program of the new Office Genuine Advantage (OGA) notifications last April in Chile, Italy, Spain and Turkey, but at the time, it did not set a timetable for expanding the initiative.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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