Guest column: Why Microsoft must be stopped

Everyone who uses a computer or depends on computers has an interest in seeing Microsoft's anticompetitive and anticonsumer practices curtailed by antitrust authorities.

Microsoft's claim that it's defending its right to innovate is a cruel joke in an industry that sees its best innovators attacked by the company's anticompetitive actions. Microsoft's agenda isn't innovation, it's imitation, as well as the imposition of suffocating control over user choices and an ever-widening monopoly.

If the government can't curtail Microsoft's anticompetitive conduct in the browser market, the company gets the green light to become even bolder elsewhere. And for Microsoft, elsewhere is just about everywhere. It isn't only the browser market, it's virtually any mass-market software application, all server products, programming languages and the growing fields of electronic commerce, multimedia publishing and Internet navigation.

Companies spend enormous resources anticipating and responding to Microsoft's use of restrictive contracts, strategically shifting standards, manipulation of product compatibility and other forms of monopolistic warfare. That detracts from efforts to innovate or improve existing products. The victims of Microsoft's monopolistic activities aren't just the companies that go belly-up; they are the consumers who pay high prices to use mediocre and unreliable products.

Microsoft's public relations machine has tried to paint the antitrust laws as outdated and irrelevant in the fast-paced computer industry. But antitrust laws were created in response to the new technologies of the industrial revolution, and they have been a factor in each new wave of technology. We still embrace the Bill of Rights, which is much older than the antitrust laws. What's critical for antitrust enforcement is to find remedies that address the sources of anticompetitive conduct and are appropriate for an industry with short product cycles, changing product definitions and production innovations.

If there are criticisms of the legal case against Microsoft, they are that it was initially too narrow and that the government has been slow to suggest remedies for Microsoft's conduct. In the 1995 agreement between the Justice Department and Microsoft, the government settled for minimalist and ineffective remedies that didn't address major sources of Microsoft's power. Fortunately, antitrust authorities can avail themselves of a plethora of remedies for Microsoft's anticompetitive conduct. Even in the area of anticompetitive conduct, Microsoft is mainly an imitator. Drawing from past antitrust actions in the computer, software and other industries, the government could require, among other things, divestitures;nondiscriminatory sharing of APIs and other technical information such as data file formats; "Chinese walls" between the developers of operating systems and applications; nondiscriminatory licensing; and required support for or noninterference with nonproprietary Internet protocols. Ultimately, the industry will benefit from more diversity and less monopoly.

We need to build on the lessons from the Internet and stop Microsoft's efforts to transform the Internet into a private network dominated by a single, ruthless company.

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate in Washington. His Internet address is ralph@essential.org. James Love is director of the Consumer Project on Technology in Washington, which uses Linux. His Internet address is love@cptech.org.

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