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Government urged to dump Microsoft Internet Explorer 6

Anti-IE6 momentum has also been fueled by attacks that hit Google and Adobe

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An online petition is calling for the government to dump Microsoft Internet Explorer 6 because of security concerns.

The petition , which as of Wednesday morning had more than 4,500 signatures, asks prime minister Gordon Brown to "encourage government departments to upgrade away from Internet Explorer 6" owing to its alleged vulnerability to attack, and because it requires web developers to specially craft sites to support the browser.

"When the UK government does this, most of Europe will follow. That will create some pressure on the US to do so, too," stated the petition's creator, Dan Frydman, the managing director of Inigo Media, an Edinburgh-based Web design firm.

Calls for IE6's demise have been ongoing for at least a year, but have recently intensified. Last week, Google announced that it would stop supporting IE6 on Google Docs from 1 March, and would also drop support for the nearly-nine-year-old browser as an editing tool for Google Sites.

The anti-IE6 momentum has also been fueled by attacks that struck Google, Adobe and dozens of other companies. Those attacks, which in Google's case successfully infiltrated the corporate network and made off with company secrets, exploited a then-unpatched vulnerability in IE6.

As news of the bug spread, Germany's Federal Office for Information Security, known by its German initials of BSI, and France's CERTA each urged citizens to dump IE6 .

Microsoft issued an emergency IE update on 21 January to patch the exploited vulnerability, as well as seven others.

Today, Frydman said that all those elements played a part in his decision to petition the prime minister. "If we didn't have to deal with IE6 when we built Web sites, the work would be quicker and the projects would be less complicated," Frydman said in an interview. "So that's a selfish reason. But we've been moaning about IE for years."

It was the combination of the IE vulnerability, the urging by German and French authorities to drop IE6 and Google's decision to stop supporting the old browser that prompted him to create the petition, which was approved and posted to the Number10.gov.uk site on Monday.

Another contributing factor, said Frydman, was the Department of Health advisory last week that the NHS replace IE6 - on PCs running Windows 2000 or Windows XP - with the newer IE7.

"All those things came together," Frydman said.

Even Microsoft has in a sense joined the anti-IE6 campaign, although it has said it cannot force users to abandon the browser, noting that it has promised to support IE6 until April 2014.

"Microsoft has consistently recommended that consumers upgrade to the latest version of our browser," a company spokeswoman said. "While we recommend Internet Explorer 8 to all customers, we understand we have a number of corporate customers for whom broad deployment of new technologies across their desktops requires more planning."

Frydman did not have much patience for Microsoft's argument that companies were chained to IE6. "Some in government are unable to use the sites their departments have created," said Frydman, noting that because the sites are designed to communicate with as many people as possible, they're crafted with more popular browsers in mind. "It's a bit crazy."

Rather than abandon IE6 entirely, Frydman suggested that government agencies or companies bound to IE6 allow their workers to also install and run alternate browsers. Inside the organization, they would use IE6, but they would be allowed to access external sites with a different browser, such as IE8, Firefox, Safari, Chrome or Opera.

"[Browser choice] would be controlled by the IT department," explained Frydman. "Otherwise it would be a recipe for disaster."

That's exactly what a large number of companies still using IE6 already do, according to Sheri McLeish, an analyst with Forrester Research who covers browsers. The biggest problem they encounter is that while they could install and run a non-Microsoft browser as a second option, they could not run two versions of IE, such as IE6 along with IE8, since Windows doesn't allow two different versions of IE on one PC.

"IE6 'end of life' was extended to 2014 by governments and business not ready (or willing) to upgrade," Frydman concluded in his online petition. "This cycle should be broken and innovation and security given their proper place."

Frydman acknowledged that petitioning Prime Minister Brown was likely just a formality. "We could have a million signatures on the petition and they still could ignore it," he said. "But it's a starting point."

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