Windows now blocks Edge browser competitors from opening links

Something changed between Windows 11 builds 22483 and 22494 (both Windows Insider Preview builds.) The build changelog makes a few mentions of changes to the protocol and file associations/default apps system. However, it omitted the headline news: You can no longer bypass Microsoft Edge using apps like EdgeDeflector.

Update (): Microsoft has backported this change to Windows 10. You can uninstall Windows Update KB5007262 to revert the change. This work-around will only work until the next cumulative update is released.

EdgeDeflector is an app that intercepts microsoft-edge:// links — found throughout the Windows 10 and 11 shells and other Microsoft apps — and redirects them to regular https:// links that open in your default web browser. Microsoft uses these links instead of regular web links to force users to open them in its Microsoft Edge web browser. When opened, Edge will aggressively push the user to set it as the default web browser. Edge will even “declutter” your browser settings, as Microsoft calls it, and unpin competitors from the taskbar and replace the pinned apps with Edge.

The 0,5 million EdgeDeflector users were probably never more than a nuisance to Microsoft. However, last month both the Brave and Firefox web browsers either copied EdgeDeflector’s functionality or signaled it was on the roadmap. Firefox may be bleeding users by the millions, but the more-ethical browser still has almost 200 million users. That news probably did make Microsoft sit up and pay attention.

Before discussing the changes in the latest Windows builds, I’d like to refresh your memory on Microsoft’s earlier escapades with antitrust regulators. I’m not a lawyer, but some case law is common knowledge in the tech field. I’m, of course, thinking of United States versus Microsoft (2001) and Microsoft versus European Commission (2009). In both cases, regulators found that Microsoft was abusing its market-leading operating system to unfairly promote its Internet Explorer (now called Edge) browser; disadvantaging competing web browsers.

While the US decided not to take action against Microsoft on this point, the EU didn’t hold back. Microsoft agreed to hide shortcuts to Internet Explorer and show customers in the EU the infamous browser ballot screen. The dialog listed Internet Explorer among competitors and asked them to choose what browser they wanted to one-click install.

Microsoft had several “technical issues” that caused the ballot not to be displayed to millions of users. The EU wasn’t amused and issued fines over Microsoft’s non-compliance with the ballot screen. The EU–Microsoft agreement saw the ballot screen retire at the end of 2014. At that point, the Google Chrome browser (featured on the ballot screen) had become the market leader on the desktop, and Internet Explorer was nowhere to be seen on the, then still a new category, mobile devices.

This brings us back to today. Windows 10 and 11 no longer care about the default web browser setting. Microsoft even removed the default web browser setting from Windows 11. Instead of a single setting for the default web browser, customers must set individual “link associations” for the http:// and https:// protocols; as well as file associations for the .html file type. This is a huge jump in complexity compared to the previous design. It’s clearly a user-hostile move that sees Windows compromise its own product usability in order to make it more difficult to use competing products.

Furthermore, Microsoft has added first-party experiences like News and Interest in Windows 10 and Widgets in Windows 11. It gave the features prominent positions on the taskbar. These “web experiences”, as Microsoft calls them, feature links to online news, weather, and other resources. Search result links in the Start menu and links sent to the device from a paired Samsung or Android devices are also affected.

However, these features don’t use regular web links (https://). Instead, they use microsoft-edge:// links that only work with the company’s web browser. These links are also featured in other Microsoft apps and are found around the Windows shell. These special links only exist to force users into using Microsoft Edge. They serve no other purpose than to circumvent the user’s default browser preference to promote a Microsoft product.

To fight back on this user-hostile development, I developed EdgeDeflector in 2017. It’s a tiny application that parses the microsoft-edge:// links and redirects them to regular https:// links that it tells Windows to open in your default web browser. The user would simply need to install the app and choose it as the default for microsoft-edge:// links instead of Microsoft Edge. Over the last five years, the app has grown to a small 500 000 users revolt against Microsoft’s anti-competitive practices.

So, what changed in Windows 11 build 22494? You can no longer set anything but Microsoft Edge as the protocol handler for the microsoft-edge:// protocol. Or rather, you can choose between Microsoft Edge, Microsoft Edge (Insider Beta), and Microsoft Edge (Insider Dev). No third-party apps are allowed to handle the protocol.

You can’t change the default protocol association through registry changes, OEM partner customizations, modifications to the Microsoft Edge package, interference with OpenWith.exe, or any other hackish workarounds.

Microsoft doesn’t even bother throwing up the “An app default was reset” error message. It just silently ignores the UserChoice registry keys for the protocol in the registry and opens Microsoft Edge instead. Windows still uses the default protocol associations to detect and present possible Edge beta or preview builds.

Windows will insist you use Microsoft Edge to a fault even if you brutalize your Windows installation and purge all traces of Microsoft Edge. Windows will open an empty UWP window and show an error message instead of letting you use your preferred web browser.

This isn’t a bug in the Windows Insider preview build. Microsoft has made specific changes to how Windows handles the microsoft-edge:// protocol. (It looks to be about 8 KB of added compiled code, although I can’t say for sure.) It has not made similar anti-competitive changes to other lesser-used Microsoft Edge specific protocols such as microsoft-edge-holographic:// (for use with its augmented reality products), ms-xbl-3d8b930f:// (Xbox Live services), or read:// (reader view). These can still be changed and associated with other apps.

So, what does this mean for EdgeDeflector? The program will remain available for download, but I won’t attempt to update it until Microsoft reverses its position. Ideally, the company should cease its use of all microsoft-edge:// links. It’s user-hostile and an anti-competitive practice that regulators just haven’t caught up with yet.

There are still ways I can work around the limitation, but every method left in my toolbox will require making destructive changes to Windows. Changes that can cause issues for the user down the line, and issues that I frankly don’t want to support. They’d also require a heck of a lot more work than EdgeDeflector’s ≈100 lines of code.

Microsoft still charges 200 USD for a Windows license while simultaneously filling the operating system with ads and crapware. Weeks before launch, Windows 11 wouldn’t even show the taskbar when it failed to display an advertisement dialog. Just last week, first-party apps and features of Windows 11 stopped working due to an expired encryption certificate.

These aren’t the actions of an attentive company that cares about its product anymore. Microsoft isn’t a good steward of the Windows operating system. They’re prioritizing ads, bundleware, and service subscriptions over their users’ productivity.

For users, the best action is to complain to their local antitrust regulator or switch to Linux. Your web browser is probably the most important — if not the only — app you regularly use. Microsoft has made it clear that its priorities for Windows don’t align with its users’.