WASHINGTON--Microsoft's ongoing antitrust battle with government regulators went beyond the courtroom today as policy makers, academics, and economists held a conference to convey the message that government scrutiny of the high-tech industry is warranted but shouldn't be heavy-handed.
Unlike the guests assembled for Ralph Nader's November anti-Microsoft forum--which included economists, leftist consumer advocates, and Microsoft competitors with a well-established track record of advocating government regulation and aggressive antitrust enforcement--today's group was made up of members of the conservative-leaning Progress & Freedom Foundation (PFF), a group that reportedly has strong ties to House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia).
For its conference, titled "Competition, Convergence, and the Microsoft Monopoly," the PFF featured as a keynote speaker Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and a varied collection of representatives from the think-tank and university communities. (See related story)
What some prematurely had written off as a softball session actually turned out to be a discussion that clearly illustrated the growing division among conservatives over the Justice Department's case against the software giant. (See related coverage)
"There is no question that Microsoft is a monopoly," said Jay Keyworth, PFF's chairman. "There is evidence of predatory pricing practices and other complaints about Microsoft. But we want to make sure there is a sound, truthful approach to antitrust, not politics."
Keyworth, whose foundation once called for the elimination of the Food and Drug Administration, said the PFF strove to put together a balanced group of speakers who were analytical, whether they be lawyers or economists, to provide a tempered examination of Microsoft's continuing legal travails.
The conference, however, showed that the right is divided among libertarians--who feel the government is trying to regulate an innovative and competitive market--and other conservatives who see the company as a bully, monopolizing and crushing competition in that same market.
In fact, just as Hatch finished his speech, a conservative Senate colleague criticized the Utah senator for toeing an anti-Microsoft line. Meanwhile, former Republican congressman and vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp issued a press release defending Microsoft and criticizing the government's antitrust "attacks" on the company.
During the conference, economists pointed out the unique qualities of the technology industry and its value to today's booming economy while warning against heavy-handed government scrutiny.
"We ought to be very careful and cautious as we move forward with antitrust in this area," said Janusz Ordover, a professor of economics at New York University. "Always look for alternatives, encourage negotiations between the different parties, and look for compliance. Telling a company, 'This is the right thing to do,' is the last thing [the government] should do."
Attendees expressed hope that the PFF would foster sound debate on the issue in the future--before more antitrust judgments about the rapidly changing technology industry are made by the government.
Founded in 1993, the Progress & Freedom Foundation is a think tank dedicated to studying the "digital revolution" and its implications on public policy. Headquartered in the nation's capital, it conducts major studies and conferences addressing telecommunications regulation, censorship on the Internet, regulation of software encryption products, and other technology issues.