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Eric S. Raymond: Remember Astroturfing? Now, Microsoft wraps itself in the flag

Sep 17, 1999, 14:43 (23 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Eric S. Raymond)

Contributed by Eric S. Raymond

Remember the `astroturfing' scandal a year ago, when Microsoft was caught covertly running a fake grassroots campaign of political agitation against the Department of Justice's antitrust lawsuit? The boys of Redmond have learned something from their mistakes; this time out, they're not hiding Microsoft's hand in the so-called "Freedom to Innovate Network (see http://www.microsoft.com/freedomtoinnovate/.

Reading this page puts me irresistibly in mind of Samuel Johnson's cynical aphorism that that "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel". Nifty logo, though! Microsoft would have you believe that the antitrust suit represents a fundamental threat to the freedom to pursue technological innovation and benefit consumers.

In a general sense they're right, of course. The unintended consequence of government regulation tend to swamp the intended ones. The "public-choice" school of economic history teaches us that antitrust laws have been captured and abused by politically-connected fat cats to suppress unwanted competition far more often than they've achieved their original purpose. This is natural. When government has too much power, anyone who can't win over consumers in the market will naturally be tempted to call the Feds down on their opponents.

Still, hearing Microsoft invoke this argument is pretty rich. Gates & Co. has an egregious history of using lies, bullying, and covert FUD against its opponents. Their faked-videotape fiasco in the DOJ trial was only the most recent example in a pattern stretching back through the astroturfing scandal and their successful dirty-tricks campaigns against CP/M-86 and OS/2.

So hearing Microsoft complain that it's being economically oppressed is a lot like hearing a Communist or Nazi whine about political repression. "Oh yes?" one wants to ask, "...and how clean are *your* hands?"

Microsoft's call for "freedom to innovate" would be a lot more credible if they published full interoperability documentation for things like the Word file format, the SMB file-sharing service, NTLM, and the Exchange wire protocol. These proprietary, closed so-called "standards" are the weapons with which Microsoft maintains its stifling monopoly on the PC software market.

By all means let's see more freedom to innovate -- not just for Microsoft, but for its competitors as well. You want out from under that lawsuit, Bill? Then let those lock-in tactics go. Get serious about open systems and open source. If you did that, your "Freedom to Innovate Network" might become something more than a bad joke.

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