Microsoft deal fans flames of revolt

UserLand Software CEO Dave Winer writes that the government's deal with the company to end the antitrust lawsuit raises more questions than it answers.

3 min read
No matter where you live or who you work for, you can think for yourself. We don't need a Constitution or a First Amendment to guarantee the right to think. This is a point worth noting as our freedoms are whittled, controlled and choked.

Now, the right to speak is a whole other matter. In Nazi Germany, or Stalin's Russia, you most likely would have been killed for speaking out. That's how extreme it gets sometimes, in some places.

Even the U.S. government under a Democratic president was scared of the Internet--perhaps with good cause. I'll give them that much. It's a powerful communication tool that can be used as deftly by scientists, thinkers and people doing good as it can by terrorists, racists, child abusers and promoters of hate.

However silly it may seem, we made a historic decision in the United States, in the 18th century, to take the bad with the good. In the United States, the right to speak is something the government, by design, has very little power to regulate.

What did Microsoft give up?
It's a fact that Microsoft made a deal with the U.S. government. No theorizing necessary there. The deal was announced. Ashcroft spoke. Gates spoke. We all know it happened.

But what was the deal? What did Microsoft have to give up to get full control of the Internet?

What did the government want from Microsoft, and what did Microsoft give them?

Was it merely a campaign contribution in the 2000 election? Or did Microsoft promise to provide the government with access to all the information it accumulates in the HailStorm database?

Did Microsoft give the government the power to censor Web sites they think are being used by terrorists? With that power will the government be able to shut down sites like the New York Times or the Washington Post if they say things that compromise the government's war effort?

Will Microsoft support an Internet tax?

What else? These are just some ideas that occurred to me as I thought about the possibilities this morning. I'm sure there are others I haven't thought of.

At a certain level, I'm just beginning to understand how powerful Microsoft has become. It owns the chokepoint for most of the electronic communication over e-mail and the Web.

Now Microsoft has to get people to upgrade to Windows XP. That's the final step, the one that fully gives it the keys to the Internet, because after XP it can upgrade at will, routing through Microsoft-owned servers, altering content and channeling communication through government servers. After XP Microsoft fully owns electronic communication media, given the consent decree--assuming it's approved by the court.

Here's how it works. Microsoft's operating system is a monopoly, and so, by default, is its bundled Web browser. If one day my site were not reachable through IE I'd lose most of my readers. The company could shut down any site it wanted to, and with its new partnership with the U.S. government, it could have justification--if not moral, at least legal and pragmatic. The government has law on its side. They're a powerful partner, and a now, a Friend of Bill.

The rest of us are totally cut out of this deal. We're taken for granted: We're dumb, fat and happy, supposedly, and the future no longer looks so bright.

The fat period is over. Microsoft had a lot of power to offer to the government. The government has been granted new electronic surveillance power by Congress. Now how do they implement it? Microsoft can help. I'm not so naive to believe this was an arms-length deal. I'm certain there are aspects to the partnership between Microsoft and the U.S. government that we can't see.

If this scares you--good. I think we've got a problem, and the government and Microsoft are not likely to help us.

Your freedom will persist
No matter what happens to the Internet, remember you are free to use your mind.

I cling to the hope that the Bush administration really doesn't understand the Web, and that Microsoft really doesn't want the power to control what is said on the Internet. In my dreams they wake up and say, "We didn't see that we were accumulating this much power!"

Failing that, I pray for the integrity of the judicial branch of the U.S. government. Gotta love those checks and balances.