License to Ill


Q: About a year ago, I purchased a new PC that came with some excellent MP3 ripping software. I recently downloaded one of those Windows XP “security updates,” and all of a sudden my ripper’s kaput. Is Microsoft using its updates to secretly snuff out software it doesn’t approve of?

To quote a wishy-washy line from those Magic 8 Balls of yore, all signs point to maybe. Microsoft has been cozying up to Big Entertainment for the past several months, so it’s no great fan of MP3 rippers and other faves of the peer-to-peer set. The company’s answer to the Napsterization of content is “digital rights management,” industry lingo for locking down copyrighted material. The latest version of Windows Media Player, for example, released earlier this month, prevents users from copying most songs or film clips they’ve downloaded. But is Microsoft going a step further and actively messing with rippers and the like? The company says no (sort of), but there’s good reason to be suspicious.

The bet here is that you unwittingly downloaded an upgrade for an older version of Media Player, an application riddled with security flaws that, properly exploited, can let a 12-year-old Muscovite commandeer your PC for Lord-only-knows-what purposes. You probably snagged the fix without a second thought—you saw the flashing Windows icon on the toolbar, double-clicked, caught the phrase “security upgrade,” and hit “Install.”

However, by downloading the security upgrade, you agreed to abide by an End User License Agreement (EULA) that includes some rather Orwellian language embedded deep within. “You agree that in order to protect the integrity of content and software protected by digital rights management, Microsoft may provide security related updates . . . that will be automatically downloaded onto your computer,” the contract warned. “These security related updates may disable your ability to copy and/or play Secure Content and use other software on your computer.” Of course, no one but hardcore legal geeks ever bothers to read those mammoth, mind-numbing EULAs—a fact Mr. Roboto suspects wasn’t lost on Microsoft’s top brass.

When those creepy EULA terms came to light several months back, users and journalists raised a justified stink. Microsoft first downplayed the clause as harmless legalese, then later apologized for “imprecise language” and quietly removed the section. But if you did your upgrade prior to that removal, you essentially consented to let the nice folks in Redmond, Washington, fiddle with your property.

The question, then, is whether Microsoft took advantage of a chance to muck with your ripper. Mr. Roboto waded into the morass of Microsoft flackery to get the straight dope. After much cajoling—as well as several “We never got your e-mail request” kiss-offs—the horse’s mouth came back with this simple statement: “This situation is not typical. For these types of situations, we advise consumers to contact Microsoft technical support at 800-936-3500.” The spokesperson also recommended a visit to Neither provided much assistance. The help line folks recommended—er, insisted rather vehemently—that you contact your PC’s manufacturer, and the Web site was a mess.

In the future, you might want to check out the EULA for every security update you’re asked to install. If you don’t want to download a certain fix because of privacy concerns, hey, that’s just fine by Microsoft, but you might as well hang a “Hackers Welcome!” sign on your machine. Which makes for a classic case of “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” Bill Gates-style.

Mr. Roboto just tested out a Sprint PCS Vision phone, a $300 handheld unit that impressed with its crisp color screen—perfect for playing PAC-MAN, though it’s tough evading Inky and Blinky with thumbtack-sized keys. A companion mini-camera, which goes for a shade under $100, snaps low-resolution pictures, then transfers the image to the phone. The downside, as always, is Sprint’s dodgy service; some stalled game downloads forced reboots, and a “dead zone” near the Flatiron Building zapped a crucial conversation. Note to Mr. Roboto’s mom: I didn’t hang up on you.

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