Ralph Nader made a name for himself three decades ago by challenging the Big Three automakers and other smokestack industries, but the boom in information technology has given the consumer-rights advocate a new lease on life.
Nader has charged automakers with making unsafe products, and has alleged that meat and poultry companies have kept unsafe conditions. He also has run for president. Nowadays, the 68-year-old activist is turning his attention to high-tech giants, charging them with monopolistic practices.
Last year, Nader challenged Microsoft's dominance in operating systems; earlier this year, he charged that the proposed MCI Communications and WorldCom merger would create an Internet backbone monopoly.
His latest battleground is AT&T's proposed $48 billion buyout of Tele-Communications Incorporated. In a letter sent today to Federal Communications Commission chairman William Kennard, Nader called for public hearings into the merger's potentially anticompetitive effects. (See related story)
"What's happening in intellectual property is the frontier for the economy and our generation," said James Love, director of the Consumer Project on Technology, an advocacy organization started by Nader three years ago to focus on issues surrounding patents, copyrights, and other types of intellectual property. "[Nader] thinks it's important that we express ourselves and don't permit big companies to be the only voices heard."
In an interview with CNET NEWS.COM last November, Nader called Microsoft "the octopus connecting its tentacles with other concentrated media companies and squeezing out others."
Last fall, before the Justice Department launched its antitrust assault on Microsoft over the marketing of its Internet Explorer browser, the Consumer Project on Technology accused Microsoft of using predatory pricing to defeat Netscape Communications, and convened a conference to discuss the software giant's business practices.
Microsoft has called much of Nader's criticism misguided and misunderstood, but the software giant has agreed to modify deals that drew fire from Nader and others, such as contracts with content companies that limited their ability to promote browsers other than IE. Microsoft said the changes resulted from routine business decisions, not political pressure from Nader and others.
Nader has expanded his criticism of the information-technology industry beyond Microsoft, taking aim at telco giant WorldCom's plans to buy MCI. Amid opposition from the European Commission and the Justice Department, MCI recently agreed to sell some Internet holdings, a move Nader said was crucial in order for the Internet to remain competitive.
"He's been one of my heroes since I was a teenager," said Audrie Krause, executive director of the consumer group NetAction, which also has taken a hard line against Microsoft. "There is very little going on in our economy that he hasn't looked at."
Not that everyone is enamored with him.
"Ralph Nader has, from time immemorial, stood for the principle that big is bad," said Jeff Eisenach, president of the Progress and Freedom Foundation (PFF), the conservative Washington think tank affiliated with House Speaker Newt Gingrich. "Ralph Nader would like to use antitrust laws to bash corporations because they are large."
Although Eisenach objects to what he calls Nader's "big is bad" mentality, the two share some common ground. Earlier this year, for example, PFF held a hearing that labeled Microsoft a monopoly and condemned it for certain anticompetitive practices.
"Ralph Nader is the mirror image of [ultra-conservative commentator] Pat Buchanan," said Eisenach. "He is a populist spokesman for those who feel disenfranchised by the current system."
The son of Lebanese immigrants, Nader was born near Hartford, Connecticut. While a student at Princeton during the 1950s, he successfully challenged the use of the pesticide DDT on campus. The chemical since has been proven to be a carcinogen, and its use now is banned in the United States.
Nader made waves in 1965 when he published Unsafe at Any Speed, a book that exposed the lack of safety guidelines in the design of U.S. automobiles. In 1966, he successfully sued General Motors for invasion of privacy in a case that accused the automaker of spying.
In 1968, he launched the Center for the Study of Responsive Law, a group that won a string of legislative victories during the 1970s. Touching on everything from drinking water to the accessibility of government information and the regulation of nuclear power, Nader's effect on the lives of the common person is everywhere. He has launched more than 50 nonprofit organizations that continue to take on various issues related to consumers, taxpayers, and voters.
Despite the debate Nader's group recently has stirred up in the high-tech world, Love contends that the group's stand is moderate.
"We've not called for any divestitures of Microsoft," he said.