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Microsoft: Witness defends Passport

Microsoft's Passport authentication system again became the hot topic at the company's remedy hearing yesterday, as a Microsoft executive attempted to clarify what he said were mischaracterisations of the program made by earlier witnesses.

Microsoft witness David Cole, senior vice-president of the MSN and Personal Services Group, said in his written direct testimony that two witnesses for the states suing Microsoft depicted the company as trapping users into signing up for the Passport service.

Passport is part of Microsoft's grander .net platform for Web services and lets users create a single sign-on to access Passport-enabled sites without having to re-enter the information.

Nine states and the District of Columbia are suing Microsoft for antitrust violations. The US Department of Justice and nine other states settled their case with Microsoft last November, but the holdout states are seeking tougher remedies than those in the proposed settlement.

Cole took issue with statements made by John Borthwick, vice-president of America Online's advanced services at AOL Time Warner. Borthwick said during his early April testimony that Passport was a "critical bridge" to Microsoft's .net services, implying that users would need Passport accounts to access Microsoft's host of existing and future Web services.

Such characterisation of Passport is inaccurate, said Cole, who described the software as an "enabler" of Microsoft's Web services. "It is misleading to assert, as Mr. Borthwick did... that Passport 'serves primarily as a virtual tollgate into Microsoft's .net services. Passport is an online authentication system. It is free to end users and does not require them to use any Microsoft software," Cole wrote in his direct testimony.

John Schmidtlein, an attorney for the states, then set out to show that Passport is, in fact, closely tied to other Microsoft Web services, and users often end up subscribing to the authentication system without necessarily intending to.

Through his questioning of Cole, Schmidtlein established that users of both Microsoft's Hotmail free Web-based e-mail service, which has roughly 160 million users, and MSN Messenger instant messaging service, which boasts more than 40 million users, also must sign up for Passport. Cole confirmed that Passport accounts - of which there are about 200 million - are automatically generated for users who sign up for Hotmail or MSN Messenger.

The attorney asked Cole if a Passport account is, in fact, a prerequisite for consumers who want to use various Microsoft services. "It is for those [services] that require authentication," Cole answered.

In his written direct testimony, Cole said that users can create a Passport account simply by entering a user name and password of their choice. However, the states' lawyer showed that most Passport users have been required to give Microsoft additional personal information.

Having established that the greatest number of Passport accounts are created by users who sign up for Hotmail, Schmidtlein then showed the court a copy of the Hotmail sign-up form on Microsoft's Web site. There, users must provide additional information, such as full name, state, gender and date of birth, in order to obtain a Hotmail account.

Cole explained that Microsoft requires this information from consumers so it can target ads and newsletter offers on the Hotmail site to end users, which allows Microsoft to generate revenue from Hotmail and "run it as a business", Cole said.

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