You're Wanted in the Schoolyard, Lunch Money Optional

Submitted by C B Wright on

From Alice! by Michael McKay-Fleming.

What does a schoolyard bully practicing spin control at its most fundamental level have to do with the rest of this article? It illustrates what is becoming standard operating procedure in much of the computer industry: if someone writes something you don't like, threaten to beat them up. And to cover your bases, put that threat in writing as part of your product's license agreement.

There are plenty of companies that do this, and not just in the computer industry... but to start us out I'm going to pick on Microsoft.

Why pick on them, you ask? Because it's Microsoft. What a silly question.

Microsoft devotes part of its website to an explanation -- or, as some would call it, spin control -- dealing with why Windows is a better, more affordable, more stable and inherently more secure operating system than any of the various and sundry Linux distributions that dot the digital landscape. Microsoft's website, helpfully enough, is called Get the Facts on Windows and Linux.

Their facts, of course. But why quibble?

The site is full of white papers and research reports purporting to show Windows is more reliable than Linux, has fewer vulnerabilities than Linux, and is cheaper than Linux in the long term. It happily offers up a number of case sudies further driving home their claim that Windows gives you a lower total cost of ownership than Linux. This information is very carefully organized so that whatever your particular concern is, Microsoft has a reason why Windows is better than Linux.

Their white papers, of course, and case studies that they paid for, but there's nothing wrong with that. It's their web site. They're making a case for their software. I expect their site to have information that supports what they want you to buy. Heck, I half-expected there to be a testimonial page that claims not only that Windows can heal the sick, make the blind see, and occasionally reveal the face of God, but also that Linux is responsible for cancer.

(Oh, wait -- they sort of did that already.)

So if you want to read a bunch of white papers and look at studies proclaiming that, compared to Linux, Windows is the bee's knees, the cat's meow, aces, the tops, the Mona Lisa, Tower of Pisa, and any other adulatory phrase you can think of, it's all right there on their site. If, on the other hand, you were to perform your own study, and you happened to reach a different conclusion entirely, where would you be able to publish your data?

Nowhere, that's where. You're not allowed to publish your data, at least according to the license agreement for Windows Server 2003:

Benchmark Testing. The 32-bit version of the Software contains the Microsoft .NET Framework. Disclosure of the results of any benchmark test of the .NET Framework component of the Software to any third party without Microsoft's prior written approval is prohibited.

This particular piece of their license agreement is probably not legally enforceable... in fact, in 2003 Eliot Spitzer, Attorney General for the state of New York, successfully sued Network Associates for including a similar clause in their license agreement in part on the grounds that it had a chilling effect on free speech. But for most people that doesn't matter. Why, you ask? Because for most people -- and yes, for most news organizations -- companies like Microsoft are bigger and stronger and have more money than they do, and are willing to take someone to court and lose, just on the off-chance that instead of losing they happen to win. Most people, on the other hand, probably can't afford to go to court at all... even if they win.

Ed Foster has been one of the few consistently vocal industry journalists concerning this practice. His website, GripeLog, has covered this practice in the past, going so far as to point out that the practice is not one that is restricted to the computer industry.

So if Consumer Reports can be sued by a company that makes an air freshener over a less-than-glowing review that was carefully researched and included a rebuttal from the company in question, then anyone can be sued for anything. And unlike Consumers Union (the non-profit publisher of Consumer Reports), not everyone is willing or has the werewithal to bear the financial strain of litigious nonsense.

"But wait!" I hear you cry. "Aren't all these articles you're linking to a bit dated? Isn't most recent article you've mentioned from the end of 2004? Don't you realize that according to the principle of Internet Time, all of the information you have cited is ancient history?"

Oh, I'm sorry. I hadn't realized the computer industry had suddenly developed a conscience and taken it all back.

This kind of stuff is important. Censorship clauses allow companies to control how information about their products is disseminated, and nine times out of ten they aren't interested in what we want to know, or what we need to know... just what they want us to think.

Yes, my tin-foil hat is very stylish. Thank you for noticing.

It amounts to a war of attrition: for every company or individual willing to go to court to challenge these "censorhip clauses," there are plenty who decide it's not worth the hassle. In the end, the legality of the practice is relevant only if people are willing to hold them accountable, and if enough people aren't, then it doesn't matter if the clauses are legal or not -- they still work. And as long as they continue to work, we will have to deal with companies that are more inclined to resort to common bullying any time somebody says something they don't like hearing.