Microsoft has no licence for bad behaviour

Microsoft's demands for control of essential Internet standards belie its commitments to security for all

The fight against spam is both practical and symbolic. It directly affects our ability to benefit from the Net, and it epitomises the balance between free access and control. A new standard, Sender ID, makes it easier to reject email that doesn't come from its purported source. It's not the magic bullet, but it's certainly part of the gun.

Yet Microsoft is actively hindering the adoption of this standard. Uniquely among Internet standards, Microsoft's restrictive licence is plainly incompatible with open source, in theory and in practice. It can do this, the company says, because it holds intellectual property -- in the form of pending patents -- on basic ideas used in the standard, and thus it is free to demand that anyone who incorporates the standard in a product must comply with Microsoft's conditions. Ask the company why it needs to make this demand and no good answer is forthcoming.

Patents are no bar to Internet standards. Other companies have explicitly renounced their IP rights in order to release a good idea to the community. Indeed, without this commitment to the common good, the Internet would never have happened. You don't need a licence for HTML, DNS, or for TCP/IP -- open standards that have benefited Microsoft immeasurably, as they have benefited us all. Why, then, should we need a licence for Sender ID? Microsoft will not say.

However, the company's public silence is not matched by its actions behind the scenes. It has been lobbying intensively -- almost to the point of panic -- for vendors to come out in support of its stance. At the same time, it has made it plain to people such as Eric Allman, the CTO of Sendmail, that it would rather see the proposal die than renounce its rights to fealty.

The company knows full well that its stance will prevent software published under the GPL or any other non-restrictive licence from using the standard. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this is in fact the main purpose of the licence, and that Microsoft is announcing its intention to use any weapon at its disposal to fight open source -- even if it means using spam to hold every user in the world hostage to its demands.

Such behaviour is utterly at odds with the standards expected of members of the IT community, and Microsoft's own pronouncements about making security, safety and trustworthiness its No.1 commitment. Hindering the free adoption of an important standard is unacceptable.

If it is serious about the promises it makes, it must act to back them up. If it is not, it must have the basic decency to say so.

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