When I launched Edge this morning, I was surprised to see a message informing me that Sync was now enabled and my data was being uploaded to the cloud, to be shared with other PCs where I was also logged in.
I don’t use synchronization services between browsers because I have no interest in sharing this information with Google, Firefox, Microsoft, or any other company. Google definitely tries to push end users to activate synchronization services when they first sign into the browser, but if you turn the feature off it stays off thereafter. Microsoft has taken a different tack.
To be honest, I would’ve chalked the problem up to user error if I hadn’t seen this post from security researcher Bruce Schneier. According to him, “I received email from two people who told me that Microsoft Edge enabled synching without warning or consent, which means that Microsoft sucked up all of their bookmarks. Of course they can turn synching off, but it’s too late.”
This kind of user-unfriendly behavior is par for the course at Microsoft these days. The company recently admitted that its decision to prevent end users from changing their browsers in Windows 11 via EdgeDetector is a deliberate crackdown on choice that the company does not intend to roll back.
When asked about its decision to prevent end users from changing Edge as a default browser for certain activities in Windows 11, a Microsoft spokesperson said:
Windows openly enables applications and services on its platform, including various web browsers. At the same time, Windows also offers certain end-to-end customer experiences in both Windows 10 and Windows 11, the search experience from the taskbar is one such example of an end-to-end experience that is not designed to be redirected. When we become aware of improper redirection, we issue a fix.
But there’s nothing “improper” about the redirection as contemplated in the example above, and it’s interesting that Microsoft feels it has the right to say otherwise.
What Does it Mean to Use a Computer ‘Properly?’
Microsoft’s phrasing is instructive and it tells us a lot about how the company views end users in 2021. Let me offer a counter idea:
There is no such thing as an “improper redirection” when said redirection reflects the deliberate choice of the end user, provided the chosen option creates no criminal or civil liability, causes no security issues, and harms no individual.
It’s a bit wordy, I admit, but this is not simply a matter of semantics. The “P” in “PC” stands for personal computer. The concept of personal ownership — of sovereignty — is baked into the name. This was not accidental. The PC market exploded as it did because personal computers offered personalizability that existing mainframe and minicomputer systems couldn’t provide. These earlier systems were powerful, but they were not personal.
An “improper redirection” sounds like a minor issue. On the surface, it is. Look deeper, and this is part of a long-term pattern. It’s now far more difficult to change your default web browser in Windows 11. Users running Windows Home are forced into signing up for a Microsoft account. Now, Microsoft is admitting it believes some choices a PC user might take to safeguard browser choice constitute “improper behavior.”
Improper to who? Presumably not to the person who initiated it. What gave Microsoft the idea it was part or party to that decision? Did a Zoom conference get scheduled by mistake?
It is improper, according to Microsoft, for you to configure your own system to use the web browser of your choice. It is proper, according to Microsoft, for the company to turn on a sync feature that uploads your data to its servers automatically without first seeking consent.
Last year, Microsoft took heat for the way Edge silently imported data from other browsers at startup. These incidents show the company learned nothing from the user outcry. It’s still pushing applications like PC Health Check to end users whether they want it or not. At this point, it seems foolish to expect anything different.
Microsoft clearly believes it has the right to compel its end users to use Edge and to share sensitive browsing data with itself by default, whether end users opt-in or not. Microsoft used to seem like a company that treated end-user data with more respect than Google or Amazon, but the company’s behavior in the six years since the “Get Windows 10” campaign has dented that reputation.