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Tuesday, July 4, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Microsoft faces second class-action spyware lawsuit

Seattle Times technology reporter

A second class-action lawsuit filed in less than a week against Microsoft alleges that a central pillar of the company's anti-piracy effort — installed automatically on millions of computers — amounts to spyware.

But the attorney behind the first suit, filed on behalf of a Los Angeles man, said the company addressed many of his concerns in a software update it issued last Tuesday.

The second suit, filed Friday on behalf of a group of Washington businesses and individuals, appears to refer to a test version of Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA), a Microsoft program that is designed to check whether a user is running a legitimate copy of the company's operating system software.

Before it was updated, WGA "phoned home" to Microsoft servers once a day, delivering information about a user's computer and operating system. This daily communication was not disclosed when WGA was installed and fits the definition of spyware offered by at least two computer security groups, the Washington suit alleges.

It also states that users who elected to receive automatic updates from Microsoft "received WGA without user action, as though it was a critical security update — which it is not."

Microsoft disputes the allegations.

"We're confident that the allegations made in these suits are without merit," said Microsoft spokesman Jim Dessler. "They really do distort the objectives of our anti-piracy program and obscure the real issue here, which is the harm caused by piracy and counterfeiting not only to Microsoft, but to our customers."

The plaintiffs in the Washington suit — two businesses and three individuals who are "owners and users of computers running genuine licensed Microsoft Windows XP software" — are seeking class-action status against the company. The class would include all U.S. computer owners and users who have WGA software installed on their computers, according to the complaint.

Attorneys in the case could not be reached Monday.

Scott Kamber, an attorney representing the Los Angeles plaintiff, said the changes in the latest version of WGA, which include elimination of the daily "phone home" and a clearer licensing agreement, were a vindication.

"Microsoft knew it was wrong and that is why they changed it within 24 hours of us filing our complaint," Kamber said.

Dessler said the updates to WGA had nothing to do with the lawsuits.

"The program really has evolved to take into account customer feedback," Dessler said. It was "carefully developed to address privacy in a manner that is respectful to our customers and is entirely lawful."

Benjamin J. Romano: 206-464-2149 or bromano@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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