August 01, 2015

Sadly, How Windows 10 Reveals Microsoft's Ethics Armageddon

Over the last few days, I've been discussing various problematic issues involving Microsoft's new Windows 10 operating system, most recently in:

Windows 10's New Feature Steals Your Internet Bandwidth:

But today I'm not getting into technical details, but rather pulling back our camera a bit for a wider view of what Microsoft seems to be doing -- and unfortunately it's a very sad commentary indeed.

I'm not being facetious. There have been and still are many great people at Microsoft. Bill Gates and the company he founded contributed mightily to the development of the personal computer industry and much that subsequently evolved.

It's clear though that MS is at a crossroads, at a point of existential importance to the entire firm.

The market for consumer-level operating systems as items to be purchased has rapidly dried up. Microsoft's foray into hardware has -- we can charitably say -- been less than impressively successful.

So it's not a surprise that MS has explicitly and publicly been remaking itself as an Internet services company -- a logical decision given the cards MS now has available to play.

Yet much as Microsoft was a bit late to realize the Internet's importance many years ago, they're again late to the game, and the pressures they feel are obvious to any perceptive observer.

All of this can help us to understand -- but not to excuse -- the ethical collapse that Windows 10 appears to represent for a once great company.

And yes, this is very much a matter of ethics, in much the same vein as bait-and-switch artists and underhanded used-car salesmen of popular lore.

These various players -- including Microsoft in their handling of Windows 10 -- share a common defining characteristic, a shared ethical flaw.

They avoid being up-front and honest with consumers.

The irony is that these ethical lapses are so easily avoided.

If the bait-and-switch artist was honest about what they actually wanted to sell, they're in the ethical green zone.

If the used car salesman was direct about flaws in the vehicle on display, there's no ethical complaint to be lodged.

The same would apply to Microsoft.

By burying significant new data collection practices in the Windows 10 privacy policy that most people never read, by rigging update procedures to push users into switching browsers by default, by not bothering to ask users ahead of time if they were willing to share their Internet bandwidth for Microsoft's commercial use -- in these ways Microsoft failed the obvious ethics tests in a dramatic fashion.

MS seems to be failing at ethics even in some of the more minor areas -- with word that the popular old Solitaire game from Windows 7 and earlier has been replaced on Windows 10 with a version that forces you to sit through video advertisements unless you're willing to pay Microsoft $10 per year to shut them off.

To be sure, we can guess that somewhere up at MS headquarters in Redmond, a meeting took place where something like this was said:

"Hell, we're giving most of these people free versions of a new operating system, we've gotta get something in exchange, and they don't have any right to complain!"

That would be so very, very wrong.

Because while large numbers of users might well consider such trade-offs to be equitable and reasonable, the ethical requirement in the main when dealing with significant issues is simple: You ask permission first.

And asking permission in this context doesn't mean assuming permission, or burying disclosures, or operating on the assumption that simply providing a way to turn something off later is the same as asking permission to turn it on in the first place.

Let's take Microsoft's default commercial use of users' bandwidth to send updates to other MS users in Windows 10, for example.

Imagine if one day you noticed that your home water pressure seemed low. You search around and discover a truck parked outside that is filling its big water tank from your water system, via a hidden hose.

When confronted, the truck owners state that they didn't think they were taking all that much, and if it bothers you they'll stop.

Whether you paid for that water by the gallon or got it all flat rate, I'd wager that most people would react the same way, demanding to know: "Why the blazes didn't you ask permission first?"

To which the likely response would be: "We didn't tell you about it -- we didn't ask -- because we thought you might say no."

This is certainly not to imply that every minor user interface or operations decision must be opt-in only -- but at the very least, issues of significant magnitude must be clearly and openly spelled out in advance, not relegated to "if we're lucky most users won't notice what we did" status.

The latter course is the path to ethics hell, and no amount of free giveaways or slick talk alone can prevent a complete descent into that pit once a firm steps off the ethics precipice.

Can Microsoft still save itself from this fate? Of course, given the will. Much of what they'd need to do immediately could in theory be pushed out to Windows 10 users in a matter of days -- better explanations, asking permission, ethical defaults.

But my gut feeling says that MS is not prepared to make such a major ethical course correction at this time, and that's truly unfortunate.

Hope springs eternal. Perhaps Microsoft will prove my gut feelings on this to be incorrect. Perhaps MS will indeed alter direction and proceed toward the ethical light.

That would be delightful. But don't hold your breath.

I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so.
All opinions expressed here are mine alone.

Posted by Lauren at August 1, 2015 03:26 PM | Permalink
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