How Reg reader outrage prompted Microsoft's Passport volte-farce

All the Astroturf too


Updated Few of the hundreds letters we've received in the past week sum up the outrage that greeted Microsoft's Passport Terms of Use better than this one:-

I'd like to congratulate you on your article, perhaps one of the most-read in the publishing industry today.

I work as a screenwriter, and I know of quite a few people who use Hotmail accounts to send and receive manuscripts or screenplays, as well as copyrighted information. I have also forwarded the link to your article and Microsoft's TOS agreement to legal departments of different production houses. I have also sent it to a writer friend of mine in San Francisco, who's already doing the same.

It may be that people be advised not to use Hotmail accounts at all to avoid hairy issues. I predict some frantic back pedaling from Microsoft soon.

Hairy is an appropriate word. The overlapping license agreements create plenty of ambiguity, with little to reassure anxious users. Hotmail has its own Terms of Use, and all sections have their own Privacy Policy statements, too, although these are largely irrelevant.

The problem was really two fold. Firstly that Passport is defined by Microsoft itself as extending to services that piggy back off its authentication services." The Microsoft Passport Web Site is comprised of a Web site and its associated services..." begins the blurb at the top of the Terms of Use.

For those of you'd who'd hoped that the Passport Terms ceased to apply the moment you'd finished signing-up, and skipped away from passport.com, that was a disappointment, as its assuredly ensnared Hotmail users.

The second issue was whether the discrete Terms of Use for each service such as Hotmail, MSN Instant Messenger took precedence over the Passport terms. On that point, we may never know.

Not all of our traffic registered concern. When we began to receive a number of strangely similar emails defending the website, and all pointing to the privacy policy, we became a tad suspicious.

This one tickled us no end.

"I don't work for Microsoft. I don't like Microsoft software. I never WANT to work for Microsoft," he begins. "I DO, however, respect Microsoft's purpose and goal and most of their business tactics ..."

Such moments do you remind you of the gift of life itself. There's much more in the vein of "Just thought I'd point out that making the public fear Microsoft under false terms is pretty sad. There's a reason Microsoft is so successful today whether it's unfortunate or not. The reason is: Bill Gates is a very successful businessman..." But you get the idea already.

The problem with the Privacy Policy defense is that it isn't a defense at all. You can steal a person's idea without divulging information about their personal identity: or as our own John Lettice points out: "Isn't invading my privacy - merely starving my children."

Brewing a storm

Why Microsoft changed the terms so promptly shouldn't be a mystery. It was a PR disaster for a company bidding to be the trusted central clearing house for personal information on the Web, as it is with HailStorm web services.

"What scares me about Hotmail and Passport is that they're bringing it under their control – one particular place that Microsoft will have control of," says Mark Simmons, senior analyst at Bloor Research. What would they do with your voting data? he asks.

Building a bridge of trust isn't likely to be aided by episodes such as this. Without a substantial user base, HailStorm won't even get out of the starting blocks. ®

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