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Microsoft and the EU: Breaking the Code

What will the European Union do about the software giant Microsoft’s links to the Echelon spy system?

April 23, 2002

What will the European Union do about the software giant Microsoft's links to the Echelon spy system?

Back in May 2001, the European Parliament issued a lengthy report on the question of whether the U.S.-sponsored “Echelon” electronic spy network was damaging to European interests.

The report was long-awaited by many in the defense and business communities. They were wondering if the system — which is designed to “trap” vast amounts of electronic information for later analysis — was being used for industrial spying on Europe.

On the crucial issue of commercial espionage, the European Parliament found no evidence of U.S. misconduct. Yet, the hackles of many Europeans were raised by other conclusions in the report.

Chief among these concerns was that the capability for such spying does exist — with no oversight, monitoring or, indeed, even the knowledge of European authorities.

Those European concerns were certainly reinforced by the U.S. government’s decision to take a softer stance towards software giant Microsoft in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Much to the chagrin of Microsoft competitors, the U.S. government announced a settlement with the company in November 2001.

It is all too tempting, under such circumstances, for Europeans to imagine that this leniency on Microsoft is rooted in its role as yet another electronic tool for supporting the U.S. empire and hegemony.

How could this be? After all, it is just a computer operating system. But rumors and claims about Microsoft apparently have no bounds. There has long been an argument, in a J. Edgar Hooveresque fashion — that all sorts of secret backdoors are embedded deep in Microsoft’s software code. These secret doors exist, it is claimed, in order to enhance Microsoft’s competitiveness — and allow the company secret access into users’ computers. There are even theories that this backdoor access is being coordinated with the highly secretive National Security Agency, the primary U.S. government body responsible for electronic surveillance — and, as it happens, the designer of the “Echelon” system.

One form of proof of this kind of conspiracy theory, it is argued, is the minimum degree of actual code-sharing between Microsoft and other software producers which were imposed by the U.S. Justice Department’s settlement. This feeds inevitable claims about Microsoft’s suspicious behavior. In March 2002, Sun Microsystems filed a $1 billion antitrust suit against Microsoft.

Despite recent concessions made by Microsoft to the European Commission — requiring greater openness from the software giant — skepticism still reigns. For Europeans — whether the issue is data privacy or other forms of consumer protection — the United States is simply not considered a global leader anymore.

Unfortunately for transatlantic cooperation, all of these issues figure in ongoing disputes of trade and security — with a dark cloud of suspicion hovering over the entire process.