Nader's Raiders Try to Storm Bill's Gates
A self-styled consumer advocate exposes Microsoft's plan for total world dominance.
BY JAMES TARANTO
The Wall Street Journal, Tuesday, November 18, 1997
WASHINGTON--If there's one industry that doesn't need government regulation, surely it's computer software. After all, computer programs don't pollute or cause cancer; they don't injure anyone when they crash; and if they undermine public morals, they do so under the protection of the First Amendment.
So what's Ralph Nader, the most zealous regulator never to collect a government paycheck, to do? Find a villain, that's what, preferably an arrogant plutocrat. Who better than the Übergeek himself, Microsoft CEO Bill Gates?
Ever the skilled coalition-builder, Mr. Nader brought a diverse group of Microsoft critics here for his two-day conference, "Appraising Microsoft and Its Global Strategy," last week. Microsoft competitors, Nader-friendly scholars, the obligatory trial lawyers, and an assortment of ideologues and iconoclasts laid out a case for regulatory action against Microsoft--though most agreed that determining just what action is in order was a task best left for another time.
The conference's main theme was the danger of Microsoft using its monopoly on personal-computer operating systems to establish control of everything else. Drawing on the comments of various panelists, one can outline a narrative of Mr. Gates's expansionist plans:
First, Microsoft uses its Internet Explorer 4.0, the Web browser it plans to incorporate into Windows 98, to establish hegemony over on-line commerce. In due course Microsoft becomes the gatekeeper of virtually every sector of the economy, wiping out disfavored companies through malign neglect. "How are you going to compete if Microsoft won't put you on the Microsoft Shopping Center--which will be the opening screen on everyone's computer?" warned Roberta R. Katz, Netscape's general counsel.
Microsoft's monopoly, the story continues, expands into "content"--a dreadful bit of jargon that refers to all forms of expression and information. Through partnerships like the MSNBC cable network and publishing ventures like the on-line magazine Slate, Microsoft takes over an increasing share of the media, multiplying its power to shape public opinion. Already, Silicon Valley lawyer Gary Reback said, Microsoft publishes the world's best-selling encyclopedia, CD-ROM-based Encarta--and Mr. Gates is using it to burnish his own image; the entry under his name is a puff piece that emphasizes his contributions to charity.
Here our narrative takes a chilling turn. For Mr. Gates is not satisfied with garden-variety omnipotence; he actually wants to be God. And it is humanity's rotten luck, to hear British futurist Ray Hammond tell it, that Mr. Gates's rise comes at a portentous time. To wit: "Mankind is at the beginning of the process of creating our evolutionary successor species."
Mr. Hammond's unpublished book "Why Bill Gates Must Be Stopped"--a chapter of which Mr. Nader included in the conference literature--explains that Mr. Gates "is now using some of his cash to make personal investments in biotechnology and has brought his personal knowledge of computing (and some of Microsoft's assets), to bear on the human genome project, the mapping of the human DNA, which is often described as the 'operating system for humans.' " Can it be long before Microsoft has windows on our very souls?
At this point, a reality check is in order. There is no "Microsoft Shopping Center." Microsoft has made some ventures into on-line commerce, such as CarPoint (cars), Expedia (travel) and Boardwalk (real estate), but all face a variety of competitors. Microsoft's media undertakings have been mostly disappointing: MSNBC has but a handful of viewers; Slate had to postpone indefinitely its plan to charge readers an access fee. And, of course, Mr. Gates has not cloned himself or altered the DNA of a single Netscape user.
It is true that Microsoft, for now anyway, is the leader in the encyclopedia business, though Encarta has several credible competitors. But even if Microsoft controlled 100% of the market, Mr. Reback's point would loom tiny against the unfathomable vastness of the Internet. Encyclopedias are buggy whips on the information highway; and if Encarta treats Mr. Gates too kindly, plenty of "content" doesn't, beginning with Mr. Nader's recent article "The Microsoft Menace," published in--where else?--Slate.
In short, the conference laid out a case against Microsoft that is largely science fiction. Some of its less fanciful elements could come true someday--but mere speculation is no justification for activating that most fearsome monopoly of all, the U.S. government.
The information marketplace changes quickly and unpredictably, and mighty Microsoft has its share of false starts and flops. Remember way back in 1995, when the Microsoft Network stood poised to conquer the on-line world? If even Mr. Gates can be overtaken by events, we should be awfully cautious about giving new power to Washington on the basis of what we fear may happen tomorrow. And yet there was Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy, in the conference's keynote speech, lamenting democracy's deliberative pace: "We have to get on Internet years," he urged. "They're like dog years."
Government amassing power at the speed of the Internet--now that would be something to fear.
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