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Are you being served?

By Lora J. Mackel
Arizona Daily Wildcat,
April 6, 2000
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Last week's ruling on the Microsoft case had some interesting effects. The stock markets fell alarmingly, the people of the Seattle area panicked and Bill Gates bought some air time. In a brief and simple commercial, Bill Gates extols the virtues of the American economy and the invention of the personal computer. Then comes the kicker, his casual mention of freedom. To Bill Gates, it was the freedom that Americans have that gave rise to the computer-driven economy that has fueled America's good times. But why, all of the sudden, is Bill Gates revealing his patriotic spirit? I assure you it has nothing to do with freedom. Rather, Bill Gates was broadcasting his views to the American public about federal regulation of his company. These sneaky tactics reveal that Bill Gates really cares more about his profits than serving the consumers he hopes to attract.

So, why do I care if Bill Gates, the wealthiest guy I can think of, wants to air his personal economic beliefs over the television? Well, partially because I am a consumer who hates getting stuck with software I do not want. And plus, it irks me that someone with his wealth and power would spend time whining about regulation his company clearly deserves.

For anyone who has been living under a rock, here is the deal with Microsoft. A while ago, a whole bunch of Microsoft's competitors went to the federal government with a list of complaints. Basically, they were upset by Microsoft's strong-arm business tactics. The federal government then did some investigating and decided that Sun Microsystems, Netscape, IBM, Apple and other plaintiffs' concerns had some validity. Microsoft, not to be outdone by these puny David-types, went all out Goliath-style, hiring high priced lawyers who argued this case to death. Then last week, five years after the federal case began, the Job-like Judge Jackson handed down his finding of fact. This judgment finds Microsoft with anti-competitive tactics. End of story? Not by a long shot.

The punishment phase of this business saga has yet to be entered into. There is some talk of breaking up Microsoft into smaller mini-micros, but most experts agree this might never happen. Beside, Microsoft's armada of business lawyers have vowed to appeal. That's right folks, don't sell those Microsoft shares yet, I predict that the punishment will have very little effect on the software titans. And that is the problem. Huge companies like Microsoft, even when found guilty of crimes, can basically operate at a level above the law. Bill Gates, only six days after being found guilty of a federal crime, is on the television trying to buy the affection of the American public. It's sick. His money, and lord knows he has a bunch of it, allows him to say ninner-ninner to the federal government and the consumers it is endeavoring to protect.

There are plenty of people who think that the federal government could find something better to do than put their nose in Microsoft's business. But these critics underscore the importance of competition in industry. Microsoft's dominance of computer software might be good for Microsoft, but it is not good for consumers. Competition keeps prices down and helps to spur innovation. Without it, consumers get higher prices and less new technology.

As Microsoft's case clearly demonstrates, companies cannot be trusted not to engage in anti-competitive business tactics when they stand to gain a profit. This is why regulation is necessary. Without it, the interests of the average consumer would not be protected, and businesses would run rough-shod over purchaser freedoms. I do not like that businesses cannot be trusted to do the right thing, but unfortunately, government regulation is one of those essential evils that keep more people free.

I cannot force Bill Gates to respect this protective role the government is playing, but I can be angered when he totally disregards it. And that is what this ad campaign is doing. It flouts Microsoft's disregard for the federal laws that might, and I stress the might, force them to behave as though they live in an open society. I think the American public has a different view of freedom than Bill Gates. To the average consumer, freedom is being given choice of products. To the average American, freedom means competitive prices and being able to choose companies that place their customers before their own self-interest. Right now, Microsoft is not this kind of company. And until it is changed, Microsoft is oppressing consumer freedom.

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