Guest column: To what higher authority is MS answerable?

I sure hope I don't get in trouble for this. The last thing I need is to be whisked away into some little room the next time I'm passing through US immigration, and they run my name through their computers.

I used to work for the US National Security Agency (NSA), the "supersecret" (a term which I personally don't get, since it's kind of like "super-pregnant" or "super-round" -- I mean, it's either secret or it's not) government agency tasked with collecting what they call "signals intelligence" around the world. In other words, they intercept foreign communications, analyse those communications, and prepare reports for US policy makers.

So what I was doing at that time was quite similar to what I do now -- gather information and write about it -- only back then the sources of information were highly classified and my readership consisted of a bunch of overpaid bureaucrats rather than the planet's most talented, best looking IT professionals (hey, I know what side my bread's buttered on).

Incidentally, as you might have heard, the good ol' NSA made news recently when it instituted a ban on Furbys -- those scary-looking little stuffed animal things that are all the rage in the US, which apparently have some kind of record and playback function built into their disgusting little bodies.

I can testify from experience that the NSA is in fact very touchy about having any kind of recording medium inside the building. I can remember one morning I stuck a couple of cassette tapes in my jacket pocket to listen to in the car on the way to work. Unfortunately, I forgot I had them, and inadvertently took them with me into the building. When I realised I was carrying them, I knew I'd be in deep doo-doo, so I promptly went down to security and turned them over, explaining what had happened and that it was unintentional. Of course the security people confiscated them, so there went my favorite Captain & Tennille and Starland Vocal Band tapes. What can I say? This was the mid-eighties. And no, smarty pants, they were NOT 8-track tapes.

Anyway, at one point during my NSA stint I was covering the economic situation in Nicaragua. And as it happened, one of the "customers" who read my reports was none other than Oliver North, the guy who worked in the bowels of the White House and oversaw the thing where they were illegally selling arms to Iran and equally illegally using the money to equip the contra rebels in Nicaragua, while President Reagan was muddling around and dozing off upstairs.

All of this was exposed in October and November of 1986, and I quit in July of 1987. That's not why I quit, but when I found out about it, I can't say that I was particularly delighted that all my hard work had been aiding and abetting some goofball who had no regard for the rule of law. And to see this Oliver North character standing proudly in his medal-bedecked Marine Corps uniform and lying through his teeth to the US Congress when they finally caught on to what was happening made me even more peevish. I understand now the guy's thinking about running for president. Somehow it seems to fit.

In any event, what was so galling was this attitude that North and his cronies had that since they were involved in really secret stuff, they weren't answerable to anybody. Shredding incriminating documents in the basement of the White House was acceptable, even meritorious, because they were convinced they were smarter than the individuals the American people had elected to govern them.

These are the memories that came flooding back to me last week when I read about what was happening in Washington with the Microsoft/Department of Justice court case.

Presumably you've heard about the infamous videotape Microsoft prepared and presented to the court, in which it demonstrated the government's prototype browser removal program for Windows 98. The tape was originally intended to show that using the program, written by Princeton University computer scientist Edward Felten to remove Internet Explorer from Windows 98, cripples the operating system.

But a government prosecutor proved to the court that several different computers were used during Microsoft's filming of the demonstration, showing, for example, how an icon for Microsoft Outlook appeared in one frame and was gone in another.

While the judge in the case subsequently gave Microsoft the benefit of the doubt about whether it had deliberately falsified the outcome of the demonstration, the very fact that Microsoft would have so little regard for the court that it would knowingly try to pass the tape off as something that it really wasn't is disturbing.

Whether or not you buy the argument that Microsoft has violated antitrust regulations and that it wields monopoly power in the operating system market, what is clear from last week's embarrassing disclosure is that Microsoft, like old Ollie North, somehow considers itself to be elevated above the norms of legal and social accountability. The videotape demonstration was submitted as evidence in a key US federal court case. Doctoring it in any way is inexcusable under those circumstances.

What the smart people at Microsoft need to understand is that this is the type of thing that causes so much resentment towards them in the marketplace. Until Microsoft demonstrates a willingness to follow the same rules everyone else has to follow, it will always be eyed with distrust, regardless of the outcome of this court case.

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