- Microsoft is demanding that organisers of a mock awards ceremony withdraw their nomination of the company for practices deemed a threat to personal privacy.
Microsoft is at the top of a list of companies, politicians, and institutions being considered for the Austrian "Big Brother Awards," a tongue-in-cheek ceremony intended to raise awareness of the issue of personal privacy in the Information Age.
The award sponsors nominated the software giant "for an attempt, such as has never been seen before in such dimensions, to obtain complete control over its customers," citing the "mandatory registration" for the new Windows XP operating system, and the Passport online identification system, which "gives an almost unlimited potential for surveillance."
Microsoft vehemently rejects the allegations, says Thomas Lutz, a spokesman for the company's Austrian subsidiary, in a telephone interview, adding that he had responded to the group's claims in an email message.
"The product activation of Windows XP can in no way be called a 'mandatory registration,' it consists of a fully anonymous process that only ensures that a particular copy of the software can only be installed on one PC," Lutz wrote in his message to the awards organisers, which they subsequently made public.
The Passport service, he wrote, "stands under equally strict guidelines as concerns data privacy, and its structure is already set up in such a way that abuse and unauthorised collection of user data are excluded."
"I kindly request that you withdraw your nomination or definitively prove your allegations," Lutz wrote the organisers.
But the awards committee stood by its choice of Microsoft.
"It's not about the software, it's about a CD with a program that crosses a shop counter, and the user must be able to assume he can use it. That's what he paid for," says Hans Zeger, the head of Arge Daten Austrian Society for Data Protection, one of the sponsors of the awards. "A registration would be nice, but it's not provided for by the law in Austria. It infringes on the rights of the consumer."
"Whatever Microsoft says, when I buy software I have an agreement with a dealer and not with the company that produces it," Zeger continues.
As for Passport, he says, the problem is that it's not clear what happens to the personal data provided by users when they register for the single-login system. European Union guidelines on data protection, he added, require that users be notified to whom which information will be passed on.
"Microsoft is trying to centralise a process -- the identification of customers and providers for electronic commerce -- and that has a high potential for surveillance. It's not that surveillance is taking place now; it's just that we simply believe that a company like Microsoft should stay out of the business of online identification," says Zeger.
The Big Brother Awards ceremonies in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland are scheduled for this Friday. They are modelled after the awards of the same name created by the watchdog group Privacy International, and presented in the UK, the US, Denmark, France, and Hungary.
Microsoft has faced criticism from privacy groups in the US, who have filed a complaint with the US Federal Trade Commission, saying the software company deceptively uses the Passport service to collect data about users.