Opponents of Windows 7 IE plan label browser ballot screen a 'threat'

In a complete reversal of roles for at least one of the principal advocates for equal access to Windows Web browsers, an attorney for the European Committee for Interoperable Systems told the European Commission in a statement published by The Wall Street Journal today that he now sees the possible inclusion by Microsoft of a Web browser selection ballot for European users of its upcoming Windows 7 operating system as a threat to those users.

Last July, Microsoft submitted a proposal to the European Commission that it hoped would comply with its demands to unbundle Internet Explorer 8 from Windows 7, and give users a choice of competing browsers. "Nothing in the design and implementation of the Ballot Screen and the presentation of competing Web browsers will express a bias for a Microsoft Web browser or any other Web browser," the proposal reads, "or discourage the user from downloading and installing additional Web browsers via the Ballot Screen and making a Web browser competing with a Microsoft Web browser the default."

A few scant details of Microsoft's proposal have emerged since then, including a mockup of a possible ballot screen -- albeit one that clearly appeared to have been rendered by IE8. Still, based on what information has been made available thus far, ECIS attorney Thomas Vinje characterized the questions that consumers would be asked to answer as "threatening and confusing," warning the Commission that Microsoft's plan may appear to be in compliance with its demands, but will end up being ineffective.

Vinje's response was not to the WSJ itself; rather, it was one response to a questionnaire, discovered by Reuters last Friday. The questionnaire was sent by the European Commission to an indeterminate number of the "interested parties" in the Web browser bundling affair, one of which is the ECIS, whose members include Opera Software. Last summer, Opera was on record as supporting the notion of a browser screen, although the ECIS' response indicates that it now takes issue with what appears to be Microsoft's strategy for the ballot screen, which has certainly been subject to change over the past three months.

Though the Mozilla organization remains officially supportive of the screen proposal, Mozilla Foundation CEO Mitchell Baker also went on record last month as skeptical of the company's tactics. Baker suggested at the time that giving the user that single choice may not be adequate for removing IE8, should that be the user's wish. Since then, she wrote a supplemental piece last week which suggested that users should be given the choice continually to change browsers, as part of an ethic of maintaining interchangeability along with interoperability.

"This ability to change components, to enhance or maintain a product the way to meet individual needs is at risk in the online world," Baker wrote. "Similarly, the ability of independent creators to try new things is at risk. Technology manufacturers use both technical and legal means to restrain this freedom. Some make it difficult technically to change a component. Others try to make it illegal. Some do both."

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