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Internet Explorer 11 is Microsoft’s latest vehicle to promote Windows 10. This time, the Trojan Horse is a critical security update for Internet Explorer 11, which comes bundled with a non-security-related update that reportedly adds a Windows 10 banner ad to the browser in Windows 7 and 8.1.
In retrospection, this step is not surprising. As Windows 10 is replacing Windows 7 and 8, Microsoft is also decommissioning Internet Explorer (IE) to make space for the new browser, Microsoft Edge. Why not target IE users and get them to upgrade to Microsoft’s new flagship browser?
You can give in to Microsoft’s nagging or you can continue to resist. We’re here to educate you about your options and help you with your next move.
What Did Microsoft Do This Time?
On Patch Tuesday on March 8, Microsoft released a 52 MB large security update for Internet Explorer for Windows 7 and 8.1.
The summary for patch #3139929 reads like this:
This security update resolves several reported vulnerabilities in Internet Explorer. The most severe of these vulnerabilities could allow remote code execution if a user views a specially crafted webpage in Internet Explorer. (…) Additionally, this security update includes several nonsecurity-related fixes for Internet Explorer.
The last sentence seemed suspicious to Wood Leonhard of InfoWorld, who was the first to report on this case. Sure enough, in the list of non-security-related fixes included in the security update, the description of update #3146449 says “Updated Internet Explorer 11 capabilities to upgrade Windows 8.1 and Windows 7.”
The respective knowledge base article leaves no doubt about what this update intends to do:
This update adds functionality to Internet Explorer 11 on some computers that lets users learn about Windows 10 or start an upgrade to Windows 10.
The update is said to only affect computers that have not joined a domain. Furthermore, the banner ad is reported to show in the new tab page only. Unfortunately, we have not been able to trigger it. We suspect that — as with the Get Windows 10 app — Microsoft won’t launch system-wide ads until later this year, and that we’re only seeing preparations for a more aggressive push for people to finally upgrade to Windows 10.
Note: The screenshot above depicts a standard overlay ad on MSN.com, which also pops up in other browsers, and was first seen in August 2015. To date, we haven’t seen documentations of any Windows 10 banner ads anywhere that we couldn’t also reproduce in Chrome on Windows 7.
Why Is This Update a Problem?
Microsoft is sneaking in an update that is not required to safely use Internet Explorer 11 and there is no way to isolate, remove, or block it. Sadly, we can expect to see more of this kind of deceptive behavior.
What’s disturbing is that Microsoft appears to be following the idea that the end justifies the means. In Microsoft’s world, it has become legitimate to bundle upgrade reminders, possibly in the form of banner ads, with security updates.
In the present case, the Trojan update primarily affects private users of Windows 7 and 8.1, i.e. people who self manage their systems and its security-related settings. This is the audience that will have the least control over updates. With Windows 10, Microsoft is switching to fully automated updates, supposedly to increase security.
And in the disguise of security, users are being hassled into upgrading to Windows 10, too.
What Can You Do?
Your options are limited because the adware comes packed with a security update. While you can uninstall security updates in Windows 7 and 8.1, it would be irresponsible not to apply the latest patches. What you can do instead is…
1. Avoid the New Tab Page in Internet Explorer 11
Many of you are already doing this with the Get Windows 10 system tray icon and other ads you see online. Just pretend it wasn’t there and don’t fall for the temptation.
Since the banner is only showing in the new tab page, we recommend switching to a different setting for your new tabs. Within Internet Explorer, go to Settings > Internet Options, press the Tabs button, and under When a new tag is opened open: select either A blank page or Your first home page.
This should settle things for now.
2. Migrate to an Alternative Browser
If you’re not using Internet Explorer, Microsoft won’t be able to bother you with its Windows 10 banner ad nonsense; at least not inside your browser. Fortunately, you have plenty of options to surf the Internet.
Internet Explorer and Microsoft Edge are non-options, but you can still choose from Opera, Firefox, and many niche browsers, like Nitro.
3. Remove Internet Explorer’s Front End
If you really want to rid yourself of Internet Explorer, you can remove its user interface elements. Go to Control Panel > Programs > Turn Windows features on or off and remove the checkmark next to Internet Explorer. Click OK, wait until the process completes, reboot your computer, and IE will have disappeared.
Note that we do not recommend this method because in rare cases you’ll need Internet Explorer to access legacy websites, Windows components like Help and Support, or pages that require ActiveX. Besides, Internet Explorer is deeply integrated into Windows, so you can’t actually uninstall it. Microsoft Developer Pat Altimore explains:
All of the system components remain for use by the operating system and other applications. The web browser application (IExplore.exe) is “hidden” and not removed. When you apply security updates to the PC, the Windows components as well as the hidden IExplore.exe are serviced. Therefore, if you re-enable IE, it should be up to date.
In other words, save yourself the effort, just switch to a different default browser, and forget about IE, while you don’t need it.
Windows Is For-Profit
If you’re set to stay with Windows 7 or 8.1, you should remain alert. This is not Microsoft’s last move in getting you to upgrade prior to July 2016, even though Windows 7 and 8.1 will be supported for years to come.
You can prepare for future upgrade hassles by installing a third party application that can help you block the Windows 10 upgrade. GWX Control Panel, for example, has been successful in removing and blocking the intrusive Get Windows 10 app.
Remember that Windows is a for-profit venture and the least profitable audience so far has been home users. While Windows 10 is a great operating system, it’s clear that Microsoft will promote products across the operating system to make sales through the Windows Store. The larger the potential customer base, the higher the margin, hence the relentless push for the “free” Windows 10 upgrade and an audience of 1 billion Windows 10 users.
How concerned are you about Windows Update pushing unsolicited updates onto your computer? Have you seen the ominous banner ad in Internet Explorer, yet? What makes you stick with your old Windows version?