- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 30, 2000

It's not easy trying to run an industry worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Just ask Janet Reno. There was her Silicon Valley overseer, Assistant Attorney General Joel Klein, trying to rearrange Microsoft Corp. according to a government blueprint, and the very companies that stood to benefit from the plan were reluctant to support the feds publicly. Privately they were happy to see the feds hamstring a competitor, but private backing wasn't good enough for the Department of Justice.

To break up Microsoft, Mr. Klein wanted open backing from the industry, Wired magazine reports, of the kind "that shapes media coverage and editorial opinion; the kind that gets through to the man in the street; the kind that changes minds, and moves votes, in Congress." Mr. Klein knew that the remedy phase of the trial would be intensely political. He needed the Valley to "make some noise." But, the article continues, Justice officials practically had to get down on their knees and beg just to get the companies to testify at the trial. Such are the indignities of public service.

Miss Reno and Mr. Klein may yet get to redesign the industry. Although federal district Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson this week postponed a key ruling in the case to allow Microsoft to negotiate for its life, he has already ruled that the company tied its Windows operating system the cyber launch pad for applications like word processing and money management to Internet software in order to fashion a monopoly at the expense of its competitors. Pending a settlement between the company and Justice, he is likely to rule that Microsoft broke antitrust laws in the process.

The next phase of the trial would establish a remedy for the violation, which is the subject of Mr. Klein's campaign. The question is whether Judge Jackson should simply order Microsoft to clear future software innovation with Miss Reno's tech support staff. Or should she break up the company into Baby Bills that can't monopolize the market? Mr. Klein wants a breakup. Anytime someone mentions another solution, one company chief told Wired, Mr. Klein "looks bored." Likewise the leader of a group of 19 states attorneys general who have joined the feds in suing Microsoft, John Tierney, is making uncompromising noises. "These aren't cases," he told The Washington Post, "they're jihads."

Perhaps someone could find Mr. Klein a hobby to cope with his ennui and get Mr. Tierney some other outlet for his religious impulses. One wonders about the wisdom of giving government officials with such agendas the power to play politics with a company whose products have helped make high-tech services more accessible to users at lower and lower prices.

Recall that one of the complaints Judge Jackson made in his findings of fact was that Microsoft had given away, yes given away, Internet Explorer, a "browser" that does just what its name says, for free. "Despite the opportunity to make a substantial amount of revenue from the sale of Internet Explorer … senior executives at Microsoft decided that Microsoft needed to give its browser away in furtherance of the larger strategic goal of accelerating Internet Explorer's acquisition of browser usage share," he wrote. Thank goodness consumers can count on Mr. Klein and Judge Jackson to protect them from free goods and services.

Microsoft's competitors aren't the only ones to benefit from Mr. Klein's brand of politics at the expense of consumers. Since the trial began, much of the power computer users exerted on companies to meet their high-tech needs has shifted to Washington. Beltway lobbyists, public relations firms and lawyers dine well these days trying to influence the government's power to dictate computer code to Silicon Valley and to Redmond, Wash., home to Microsoft. Mr. Klein's political career is getting a highly publicized boost, as are the states attorneys general. Trial lawyers are busy arming themselves to shake down Microsoft for more millions after the government is done with it. Journalists, talk-show hosts and other pundits make a living debating the issue.

So what, some would say. That's politics. Well, aside from the absurdity of putting the Justice Department in charge of this country's software engineering, there is also the case's impact on fashionable concerns about campaign finance. If Microsoft's foes can, in effect, rent Janet Reno to protect them from competition, or if, as Wired put it, the case shows the Justice Department can take on the world's most valuable corporation "and more than hold its own," then interest groups are going to spend still more money trying to influence the direction of that power. Political contributions "hard," "soft" or mushy are going to go up, not down. Is this really the kind of reform John McCain had in mind when he ran for the Republican presidential nomination?

Next time that influence may sight one of Microsoft's competitors in the Justice Department's cross hairs. If those competitors aren't loud and effusive in their enthusiasm for the Justice Department now, maybe it's not just that they fear Microsoft's "market power." Maybe they are coming to realize that ultimately the creation of a federal software czar is nothing to celebrate.

E-mail: smithk@twtmail.com

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