I spent a couple of hours this weekend doing some cyber-pruning; I removed hundreds of spyware programs from two of my home computers (not my Mac, of course, because it doesn’t attract such crud). Before I got around to running Spybot Search & Destroy I went into the Control Panel settings and used the old Add/Remove Programs function. There I found some obviously evil detritis, but I also noticed something interesting.
If you are familiar with this little area of your Windows operating system you’ll remember that the Microsoft programs and add-ons have their own distinctive icon. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, a lot of the malicious programs that I needed to remove had icons that looked just like the Microsoft icon. And they had names that were deceptively similar to what you would expect a Windows system program to have. Clearly, this is fraud of the highest order.
What I can’t figure out though is why Microsoft hasn’t gone after at least one of these companies. After all, they are severely diminishing the performance of Microsoft’s operating system. In most cases the users don’t realize that their performance problems aren’t caused by Microsoft. Obviously these spyware programs, by hobbling the computer’s performance, are tarnishing Microsoft’s reputation (such as it is). Normally, a company whose reputation is being tarnished through deceit practiced on its customers will initiate litigation.
Well, I suppose Microsoft’s legal department has considered this issue and rejected the idea of litigation. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone in Microsoft’s legal department suggested that, since the users had agreed (via boilerplate licence agreements that the users didn’t bother to read) to let the malicious spyware providers install the offending programs, such a lawsuit would be fruitless.
I obviously haven’t studied the issue in depth, but I’m not so sure there isn’t a basis for a lawsuit. Let’s assume that the users specifically allowed the spyware companies to download software. Did the users agree to be deceived and have software loaded that appeared to be Microsoft software (making it much harder to find and remove)? And did Microsoft agree to allow people to use icons or dialogue boxes that closely resemble legitimate system notices?
No obviously they didn’t. The spyware purveyors are clearly on shaky footing; I doubt there is a court in the land that would allow them to escape liability, especially after hearing testimony about the lengths to which these companies go to make their software difficult to uninstall. So why doesn’t Microsoft sue them? I don’t know, but I do know that everyone (except the targets of the litigation) would be pulling for them if they did. And that would certainly be an unusual twist, wouldn’t it?