David Warsh, economics columnist for the Boston Globe, has written an important piece about the Microsoft trial. He begins with a small but revealing misrepresentation by one of the company’s lawyers in court. Then he says:
Dozens of these Microsoft moments occurred during the trial, at every stage, involving persons from chairman Bill Gates to his lawyers to his experts. The disabling of the Windows operating system out of spite after a judicial order to remove Internet Explorer. A faked videotape offered in evidence. The mumbled ”I don’t remembers.” The unchanging protestations that the company had done nothing wrong.
Warsh details Microsoft’s assault on the legitimacy of government and the courts during this trial. He concludes:
How will Microsoft’s conduct be thought of in terms of the history of the decade? As being profoundly dangerous to the rule of law. The case itself ultimately will be determined in the courts, of course. But its unprecedented attempt to purchase immunity in the administrative and legislative branches of government must be tried in the broader court of public opinion.
Tech companies are generally not paragons of trustworthiness. The tech industry is still in its adolescence, and it acts that way all too often.
But when it comes to mendacity and meanness, Microsoft may have no current peer. Its competitors and even its largest customers — the PC manufacturers — the have learned this over the years. Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson found it out for himself as he listened to the witnesses and looked at the evidence.
Reporters who cover Microsoft know it too. In 20 years in journalism I have never dealt with a company that has been more prone to deception and stonewalling than this one.
Last week, Bill Gates said he wished he’d testified at the trial, so he could explain to the judge how much Microsoft has done for the world. More bull. David Boies and the government lawyers would have pulled him apart on the witness stand.
I’m so used to Microsoft’s disregard for the truth that I let little things just slip by. Here’s one I’d almost forgotten.
In a recent filing with the court, the government cited a previously unreleased Microsoft internal document strongly suggesting the company’s intention to continue behaving exactly in the ways that got it in trouble in the first place. A company spokesman trotted out the usual line — that the quote was just a snippet and was taken unfairly out of context.
Okay, I said to a Microsoft PR person, show it to us so we can see how the quote is out of context. I got no response. I asked again. No response. If I ever do get a reply, I’m sure the answer will be no.
Public opinion still holds Microsoft in high regard, if recent surveys are accurate. I don’t find this surprising, because Microsoft has spent millions massaging public opinion in its favor. If the average person ever deals closely with the company, the approval rating will drop like a plane with no wings.
In a vacuum, Microsoft’s untrustworthiness and arrogance would merely be a sad commentary on modern business practices. In the context of the company’s powerful position — and especially in light of its continuing assault on the rule of law and the democratic process — its behavior is downright dangerous.
Jim Cullinan, a Microsoft spokesman, points out that the e-mail became an exhibit in the remedies phase of the antitrust trial and has been publicly posted on the Department of Justice Web site (PDF document; requires software reader). Read it and decide for yourself what it suggests about the company’s intentions.
Digital Signatures — Not So Fast
It’s looking as though Congress will pass a law making digital signatures legally binding (Mercury News) in transactions between companies and their customers. This isn’t a bad idea, but the legislation is moving too quickly for my tastes.
Who’s going to store the database of signatures? The government? A company? A priest? My brother? Me?
Who will guarantee that the encryption method is safe from hackers, that our signature keys are secure? The government? A company? A priest? My brother? Me?
Isn’t this just an invitation for digital fraud? If someone empties my bank account, do I have to prove I didn’t do it?
Is it really an opt-in system? When a company “notifies” you in the fine print of an “I accept” click-through software license agreement that it’s now dealing with you only electronically, is that valid?
The legislation does consider many of these issues, but not sufficiently for my taste. Let’s slow down on digital signatures. There’s no need to rush into this.