Microsoft's New Patent: The Dark Side of SaaS

A new patent for notifying people when a privacy policy has changed suggests some dark possibilities for the future of software-as-a-service.
News broke last week that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, home of the dingbats who routinely issue patents on water, fire, and ham sandwiches, has issued a new patent to Microsoft.

What could this insanely cool patentable idea of the 21st century be?

The latest and greatest from Redmond, Washington, is patent 7,269,853, on a method for notifying people when a privacy policy has changed and locking them out of their data unless and until they agree to the change.

The idea of Microsoft patenting the process for bullying people into accepting privacy policy changes is not merely expected, it’s almost passé, at least for those who have been paying attention.

This patent gives an interesting insight into what the future may hold for those who are considering buying into the “software as a service” model that so many companies are moving towards. For decades, it’s been the dream of Microsoft and many other software companies to stop selling software and instead charge you monthly rent.

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Even Google has gotten into the act with an array of new web-based applications like Google Docs, Google Spreadsheet and most recently Google Presentation – presenting a head-on challenge to Microsoft’s dominant Office software suite.

As I've written previously, it can sometimes be difficult to remember how Google makes its money. The company still makes most of its money by sifting through the world’s data and dotting it with advertisements.

The strategy behind how Google web-based apps will make money is pretty simple: while you’re setting up a spreadsheet for your office football pool, contextually appropriate ads can appear in and around your workspace, such as ads for gambling addiction hotlines, and for resume preparation services for when the boss loses to you in the football pool.

With the ‘853 patent, Microsoft seems poised to rain on Google’s parade, at least in terms of streamlining the process of bullying and cajoling users into agreeing to more and more draconian privacy policies once their data is ensconced in a software-as-service environment. Microsoft’s patent application pulls no punches when it comes to the kinds of dire consequences to be suffered by anyone cheeky enough to reject a privacy policy upgrade. One of the figures in the patent application includes a mocked-up dialog box which says:

“You have rejected the revised privacy statement. Your account will be closed on July 31, 2003. This means: the information stored in your profile will be deleted [...] Someone else could register a new account using this e-mail address [...] You may lose access to any participating sites or services you now use and to information that you provided to those sites or services.”

Granted, this patent isn’t likely to be worth the paper it’s printed on. The filing date is in 2003, which is approximately four years after I helped an employer design exactly such a system to cancel users’ accounts and deny system access to protected data if users chose to withdraw privacy consent.

But the value of this patent is to make it very clear how companies like Microsoft intend to view your work product in that brave new world in which you don’t own the software you use to create, manage, and make use of that product. This patent is a road map for how a company like Microsoft can, and just might, hold your personal and professional data hostage if you don’t agree to whatever they want to do with it. It’s like a bad joke – “we didn’t merely invent holding your information hostage, we’ve got the patent on it!”

Then again, if you’re considering using hosted productivity applications for your business critical or personal documents and data, without ironclad guarantees of privacy and security, then the joke is already on you.

Tags: security, Google, Microsoft, SaaS, Dell

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