Google complains to DOJ about Vista search

Accuses Microsoft of discouraging users from running its software

Google Inc. has complained to federal antitrust officials that the search tool in Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Vista discourages customers from using its own search utility, the company confirmed Sunday.

Stories posted to the Web sites of The New York Times (registration required) and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer Saturday first revealed that Google's complaint centered on Vista's built-in desktop search software, dubbed Instant Search. According to both newspapers, Google accused Microsoft of designing Vista to discourage users from running its indexing and search software.

On Sunday, Google spokesman Ricardo Reyes confirmed the charge. "Microsoft's current approach with Vista desktop search violates its agreement with the government and hurts consumers." he said in an e-mail to Computerworld. "The search boxes built throughout Vista are hard-wired to Microsoft's own desktop search product, with no way for users to choose an alternate provider from these visible search access points. Likewise, Vista makes it impractical to turn off Microsoft's search index."

According to postings on Microsoft's support forums, the only way to completely disable Vista's search is to stop the Windows Search service in the Microsoft Management Console.

Microsoft disputed Google's charges. "We've been working with state and federal antitrust officials for the past two years to ensure that there are no problems with any of the features in Windows Vista," said company spokesman Jack Evans. "These desktop search issues were reviewed at length with regulators prior to the release of Windows Vista and resulted in more than a dozen changes at their request."

Even so, Microsoft will consider more changes to Vista, Evans added. "While we don’t believe there are any compliance concerns with desktop search, we are committed to going the extra mile to resolve this issue, so long as the changes Google is requesting do nothing to undermine the privacy and security of computer users."

During a March 2007 hearing conducted by Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, the federal judge who oversees the 2002 Microsoft consent decree, the government's status report noted that a complaint had been filed, but did not identify the company. "At the last status conference, plaintiffs reported that they had just received a middleware-related complaint," the status report read. "Since then, plaintiffs have been investigating this complaint, including obtaining significant additional information from Microsoft and the complainant."

Google had previously raised concerns about search in Microsoft's Internet Explorer 7 browser with federal officials. In May 2006, however, federal officials rebuffed Google, saying that IE7 users could easily switch search providers and that computer makers could set the default search engine in IE7 before shipping systems. Google has also filed similar complaints over search in both IE7 and Vista with the European Union's antitrust commission. Those complaints have not been settled.

According to The New York Times, the U.S. Department of Justice refused to pursue the Google complaint, and Thomas Barnett, the assistant U.S. attorney general for antitrust, sent a memo to numerous state attorneys general in May asking them to also reject the complaint. Prosecutors in several of those states, however, have reportedly decided to investigate the Google concerns whether the federal government goes along or not, a decision that has Barnett reconsidering the agency's position. E-mails and phone calls asking several of the states involved with the 2004 Microsoft settlement to comment were not returned Sunday.

Barnett's division will present its next report on Microsoft's progress in meeting the 2002 settlement to Kollar-Kotelly in a hearing scheduled for June 26.

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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