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Microsoft faces Nader group

The Consumer Project on Technology invites Microsoft to a meeting on antitrust issues but gets no commitments from the company.

A national consumer group met yesterday with Microsoft to discuss a meeting on alleged antitrust activities but said the software giant, which is facing a multipronged attack over its business practices, would not commit to attending it.

The Consumer Project on Technology has joined Microsoft competitors in criticizing the software giant for practices they say are anticompetitive. Acting on behalf of consumer advocate Ralph Nader, the organization is planning a conference to be held in Washington in mid-November that will include participation by some of Microsoft's biggest competitors and critics.

Among the panel members will be Sun Microsystems chief executive Scott McNealy and Netscape Communications general counsel Roberta Katz, as well as Vice President Al Gore and former federal trade commissioner Christine Varney.

"They wanted to know why we were having the conference, and we told them Mr. Nader was interested in talking about the different issues," said Caroline Jonah, a spokeswoman for the consumer group.

A Microsoft spokesman said that Microsoft had not yet decided whether it would attend the conference, slated for November 13 and 14, but added that, in any event, chairman and chief executive Bill Gates would not attend.

"We're trying to keep an open mind about this conference, although I have to admit that it's difficult when you look at the anti-Microsoft slant of everyone else they have invited to participate," Microsoft spokesman Mark Murray said.

Murray said Microsoft representatives at the meeting had hoped to get more information about the conference and to engage in a dialogue about the "substantive issues" surrounding it. "We still hope to work with them in the weeks ahead to better understand what their concerns are and to provide them with some better information about the reality of competition and consumer benefits in the software industry," he said.

In addition to criticism leveled at Microsoft by the consumer group and the company's competitors, the Justice Department and six state attorneys general also are looking into Microsoft's business practices. The company faces scrutiny on a number of fronts, including its $150 million investment in Apple Computer, plans to integrate its browser into its next operating system, and its decision to give away its browser, Internet Explorer, for free.

James Love, executive director of the Consumer Project on Technology, said earlier this week that he will send a letter to the Justice Department asking that it officially launch an investigation specifically examining Explorer. The consumer group has been gathering signatures for a letter it has been circulating regarding the matter. Love said he has collected some 1,500 signatures so far.