Resistance has mounted over the last several days to Microsoft’s decision to change the default search engine of Google’s Chrome to Bing on personal computers running Office 365 ProPlus.
Microsoft quietly announced the move Jan. 21 on its Microsoft 365 Roadmap page, then on Jan. 22 published support documents with additional information and a blog post that stated the company’s rationale.
Commentary on Microsoft’s blog, the support document and elsewhere — including an Office 365 website dedicated to user requests — was almost universally negative.
“I can’t believe you think this is an acceptable business practice,” asserted Rickey Roach in a comment appended to the Office 365 team’s blog post.
“This is … overreach,” opined Tom Arbuthnot on that same blog. Arbuthnot was identified as an MVP, a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional. “Microsoft might be doing this because they think it will give the user a better experience, but doing it by default without even asking the user or the organization is too much. I’m pretty sure Google won’t be too pleased with this either.” (Arbuthnot expanded on his criticism on his personal blog.)
It’s all about Microsoft Search
Microsoft’s scheme to switch Chrome from its designated search choice to Bing was part of the firm’s Microsoft Search strategy.
“By making Bing the default search engine, users in your organization with Google Chrome will be able to take advantage of Microsoft Search, including being able to access relevant workplace information directly from the browser address bar,” Microsoft contended in a Jan. 23 support document.
Microsoft Search, which the company unveiled in May 2019, was designed to make search in the enterprise — in Microsoft-made and third-party applications — more productive. Rather than return just website links, Microsoft Search would find information from files and those applications’ content, bringing to the forefront not only matches and near matches but also what the algorithms believed the user really was after. In Edge, the service is dubbed “Microsoft Search in Bing.”
Microsoft Search is a key component of Microsoft 365, the über subscription that bundles Office 365, Windows 10 and management tools, and appears to be a major initiative. (One way to gauge the latter: the comprehensive Microsoft Search in Bing adoption kit, a cache of email, poster and evaluation templates companies can use to educate workers on the service and convince them to try it.)
Apparently, Microsoft was so set on spreading the new search service that it decided to force it on those enterprise users — the ones running Office 365, anyway — who have Chrome as their default browser. Microsoft made this decision even though it had to know that the plot would receive serious pushback and could easily guess the forms of that criticism.
Not surprisingly, much of the blowback equated the unsolicited search change to the practices of malware makers and scammers.
“Force-changing the settings on a user for arbitrary reasons circles the drain of ‘unlawful,’ and is effectively browser hijacking,” said someone labeled only as camxct on GitHub, where comments attached to support documents appeared.
“Browser hijacking like in the 90s. Are you nuts?” asked kgbvax, perhaps not rhetorically.
The phrase “browser hijacking” — and others, including PUP, for “potentially unwanted program” — harked back years to a time when that practice was common. Malicious actors would infect a system with malware that changed a browser’s settings — typically its default search engine and/or home page — to drive traffic to specific sites where they could collect advertising revenue.
Google spent significant time and effort in blocking hijackers from taking over Chrome and in barring unofficial add-ons — those not hosted in the Chrome Web Store, more or less — from installing, all part of a years-long process to lock down the browser.
Now, Microsoft is attempting to do to Chrome just what Google has tried to stop.
“Chrome is not your browser, leave it alone!” said someone identified only as Andrew on the User Voice site Microsoft runs to solicit feedback and requests for Office. “This is adware at best! I am absolutely flabbergasted by this stunt!”
(As of 2 p.m. ET Jan. 28, that item on User Voice had been upvoted more than 900 times and had collected more than 180 comments.)
Others swore revenge. “This really makes me regret pushing Office 365 so hard where I work. You guys are putting egg on my face,” wrote Daniel Prince on the User Voice site. “I’m in charge of 90,000 Windows and Mac devices. Next week, we are blocking Bing.com at the firewall level. Hope this little stunt you pulled was worth it.”
Software should obtain your consent, says Microsoft
Microsoft’s add-on has already appeared on Google’s Chrome Web Store, hinting that Google at least implicitly approved of the extension. Dubbed Microsoft Search in Bing quick access, it was updated as recently as today.
A pair of users objected to the extension in the Store, too. “Unwanted plugin, should not be allowed to install without consent,” argued Michael Studte. “Mess with Chrome Edge all you want, but don’t touch non-Microsoft browsers!”
The thing is, Microsoft’s own policies have — or still do; it’s unclear — forbid changing a browser’s default search engine without authorization.
“All extensions for Microsoft Edge must be deployed from the Microsoft Store,” stated the Microsoft browser extension policy for the old-school Edge. “The installation must be initiated and completed by the user, using only the user experience provided by Microsoft Edge and the Microsoft Store” (emphasis added).
Elsewhere, Microsoft’s own definition of unwanted software included phrasing that may match how it plans to distribute the Chrome extension. In the support document “How Microsoft identifies malware and potentially unwanted applications,” under “Unwanted software,” Microsoft said, “Software should obtain your consent before installing.” Microsoft has said nothing thus far about user consent when it rolls out the next update to Office 365 ProPlus.
Neither Google or Mozilla replied to requests for comment on Microsoft’s plan to issue add-ons for Chrome and Firefox in new installations of Office 365 ProPlus and the next update to ProPlus.
Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.