UPDATE: Microsoft has issued a statement about these complaints. I’ve added it at the end of the article. –Paul
Kaspersky Lab announced today that it has filed formal antitrust complaints against Microsoft in Europe, alleging that the software giant engages in anti-competitive business practices.
“We see clearly—and are ready to prove—that Microsoft uses its dominant position in the computer operating system (OS) market to fiercely promote its own—inferior—security software (Windows Defender) at the expense of users’ previously self-chosen security solution,” Kaspersky Lab CEO Eugene Kaspersky explains. “Such promotion is conducted using questionable methods, and we want to bring these methods to the attention of the anti-competition authorities.”
According to Mr. Kaspersky, he has filed formal antitrust complaints with both the European Commission and the German Federal Cartel Office. And these complaints follow a similar complaint made in November to the Russian Federal Antimonopoly Service (FAS). (Kaspersky Lab is based in Russia.)
At the time of the November complaint, I noted that some of Kaspersky’s complaints were legitimate and that the central issue he’s raising is one I feel very strongly about, that Windows 10 does indeed stomp all over user preferences during upgrades, and that Microsoft could easily fix this issue.
“Kaspersky’s broad points are well-made,” I wrote. “Microsoft has indeed designed Windows 10 to be more user-hostile than previous Windows versions, though it would argue it has made these changes for customers. The question is whether these changes, especially forced updating and upgrading, will ultimately benefit the user base or just drive them away as reliability problems mount.”
Here’s what Kaspersky is alleging more specifically. I’m providing this in his own words because it is, after all, an accusation.
Windows Defender is included with Windows 10 and cannot be turned off. “Microsoft’s antivirus is hardwired into all versions of Windows 10 for home users,” he writes. “It’s impossible to turn it off completely, impossible to delete.”
Windows 10 makes third-party AV more annoying. “Upon attempts to perform any actions with an independent security solution, users are asked at every step: ‘Do you want to run this program?’, adding: ‘You should only run programs that come from publishers you trust’. It’s as if users are about to commit a wrongful action that violates the default settings from Microsoft.”
Windows 10 makes it impossible for third-party AV to notify users when a subscription runs out. “For three days after the expiry of a license for our security solution and the turning off of protection, we are forbidden—through our own notification system—from informing the user that it might be a good idea to extend the license so that protection could get back up and running,” Mr. Kaspersky writes. “Instead … we’re obliged to use Microsoft’s own notification system—now called Action Center—to which many users pay little attention.”
Windows 10 actually removes third-party AV during an upgrade. “You’re updating your OS, and … Windows decides that your existing security solution is, after all, incompatible with Windows 10, deletes its drivers (leaving a bunch of useless files (the solution won’t work without the drivers), and in its place switches on its own solution,” he explains. “Windows does this without the explicit consent of users, and also with barely any warning: the notification displays on the screen literally for just a few seconds. Moreover, while this notification states in bold ‘We turned on Windows Defender’, the fact that your existing security solution was removed is in small, non-bold print.”
After removing the third-party AV, Windows 10 tricks the user into thinking it’s still installed and working. “After the independent protection is deleted, it stays in the list of installed programs!” he continues. “So users … think their chosen security solution is working (why wouldn’t they? It’s there in the list of installed programs; even the icon on the desktop’s still there) when in fact it’s been deleted. The Disappearing Act was designed so that users don’t return to their independent AV, and stay in blissful ignorance as to what’s actually happened.”
Microsoft doesn’t provide third-party AV vendors with enough time to certify their products against new versions of Windows 10. “Independent developers need two months after receiving the RTM to carry out all their fine-tuning before the release of the Windows update to the public,” he claims. “Earlier, Microsoft would give us the RTM version in good time, but of late this has been reduced to a couple of weeks before releasing to the public.” Further, this behavior is bad for everyone, including Microsoft’s own customers. “While studying new versions of the OS, our experts often find vulnerabilities and mistakes in them and inform Microsoft. And normally there’s time left for Microsoft’s own developers to deal with the discovered bugs before the release of the OS to the public. But if everyone’s in such a hurry, there’s no time for such a luxury.”
Mr. Kaspersky believes that these behaviors are too numerous and indefensible to be anything other than a well-planned strategy aimed at harming his business, and at fooling customers into believing that Windows Defender is superior to third-party AV. He has many examples of the Microsoft Support chain providing incorrect information about AV, and even quotes from a Microsoft video in which the presenter explicitly says, “I want you to think about kicking out the independent antivirus because we’ve got a great solution right now and it’s going to be even better in the months to come.”
He also provides evidence from independent testing labs showing that his own AV solution is vastly superior to that provided by Microsoft. That’s easy enough to look up, and he’s correct.
The question, alas, is whether this behavior constitutes an antitrust violation.
On the one hand, you might argue that Microsoft no longer controls the personal computing market, and without a monopoly it can do whatever it wants with its own products. On the other, the EU is a lot more stringent about keeping the market competitive, and Microsoft has already suffered tremendously there. And recently, too: The “privacy theater” baloney that Microsoft added to the Windows 10 Creators Update happened specifically because of EU (and otherwise European) complaints.
Ultimately, what Mr. Kaspersky wants is reasonable.
“We want Microsoft to stop misleading and misinforming … users,” he concludes. “We want to see all security solutions being able to work on the Windows platform on a level playing field. And we want to see users being able to decide for themselves what they want and consider important to them. We want fair and healthy competition, which has always given excellent results everywhere – no matter in which industry or market.”
UPDATE: Microsoft’s response
“Microsoft’s primary objective is to keep customers protected and we are confident that the security features of Windows 10 comply with competition laws. We’re always interested in feedback from other companies and we engage deeply with antimalware vendors and have taken a number of steps to address their feedback. We reached out directly to Kaspersky a number of months ago offering to meet directly at an executive level to better understand their concerns, but that meeting has not yet taken place.” – Microsoft spokesperson
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