Tech Industry

DOJ's efforts abroad faulted

Three senators are accusing Justice Department officials of improperly encouraging foreign governments against the software giant.

In a move likely to further politicize antitrust enforcement of Microsoft, three senators are accusing Justice Department officials of improperly encouraging "foreign governments to use their antitrust laws" against the software giant.

Penned by Sens. Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama), Spencer Abraham (R-Michigan), and Jon Kyl (R-Arizona), a six-page letter sent yesterday to Attorney General Janet Reno detailed public and private talks senior antitrust officials have made concerning the Microsoft case to their counterparts abroad.

"Whatever the merits of the department's various attacks on Microsoft, we hope that you will agree that it is an inappropriate use of U.S. taxpayer dollars to encourage--either purposefully in inadvertently--foreign governments to use their laws in a way that unfairly impairs the export opportunities of U.S. exporters," the senators wrote.

A Justice Department official said there was nothing improper about any of the meetings antitrust enforcers have had with their foreign counterparts.

"The charges that that the department has divulged information to foreign governments or encouraged them to take legal actions against Microsoft is completely false," the official said. In a statement released today, the Justice Department added that "on a very small number of occasions, officials of foreign governments have contacted" Justice Department enforcers to inquire about the Microsoft investigation or the issue came up "in the course of consultations."

U.S. law enforcement officials regularly meet with foreign government representatives to alert them to wrongdoing that is happening abroad. Microsoft spokesman Mark Murray, who provided a copy of the letter, said the company had offered assistance to the three senators by providing them with information about speaking engagements.

The complaint is the latest instance of senators and others from the political arena entering the fray between trustbusters and Microsoft. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) has been an outspoken critic of Microsoft and has even scheduled a new round of hearings on the company's business practices. (See related story)

Moreover, Microsoft has garnered vocal defenders in Sens. Lauch Faircloth (R-North Carolina) and Slade Gorton (R-Washington), who have attacked the persistent efforts by Hatch and the Justice Department to scrutinize the software giant.

Chief among the concerns expressed by Sessions, Abraham, and Kyl was a visit Assistant Attorney General Joel Klein made to officials with the Japanese Fair Trade Commission in early December. A month later, Japanese officials raided Microsoft's Tokyo office, where according to the letter they "confiscated thousands of pages of documents," including Microsoft agenda planners, phone directories and original paperwork.

The senators also claimed that on May 20, Justice Department official Russell Pittman visited Brazil, where he told senior government officials that "Microsoft behaves like an arrogant monopolist, even acting arrogantly in its relations with the antitrust authorities."

Nine days later, the letter added, a senior official in charge of antitrust enforcement in Brazil said his agency was "starting to explore a way to initiate legal action against Microsoft regarding the integration of Internet Explorer into Windows." The integration issue is at the heart of two separate actions U.S. antitrust enforcers have filed against Redmond.

The letter also catalogues other visits by senior antitrust officials to their counterparts abroad, including those with the Israeli government and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

"Traveling the world criticizing American companies could encourage foreign legal actions that could harm that company to the benefit of foreign competitors," the senators warned. It asked Reno for more information--including the total time and expenditures--devoted to the visits mentioned, as well as any others the senators were not aware of.

"We're grateful that these senators are raising these kinds of issues," said Murray. "We're disappointed that a government agency would try to enlist foreign governments in attacking a successful U.S. company."