US v. Microsoft: Antitrust in
by Adam Mossoff
United States District Court Judge Thomas P. Jackson is crystal clear in his recent “findings of fact”: Microsoft is marked for destruction. But why does Judge Jackson want to punish one of the most successful corporations in American history? Because Bill Gates proclaimed that he wanted “to prove that a successful company can renew itself and stay in the forefront” [i]—and he proceeded to do just that.
By the early 90s, Microsoft had gained a dominant position in the software industry by creating Windows, the first commercially viable graphical operating system that could be used on PCs. But in the mid-90s, Gates realized that the Internet represented the next step in the ongoing computer revolution; thus, he created a business plan to “stay in the forefront” of this revolution. In so doing, he set into motion the same technological and commercial innovation that had led to Microsoft’s leading market position in the first place.
Microsoft began by investing a staggering $100 million each year in Internet research and development, and in four years the company expanded its Internet division from only six people to more than one thousand. These investments, in the words of Judge Jackson, paid “technological dividends.” [ii] (Paragraph 135) Microsoft developed a Web browser called Internet Explorer, and “after the arrival of Internet Explorer 4.0 in late 1997, the number of reviewers who regarded it as the superior product was roughly equal to those who preferred [Netscape’s] Navigator.” (Paragraph 135)
But Gates took Microsoft even farther. He integrated Internet Explorer into Microsoft’s Windows operating system so that it would be easier to incorporate the fast-growing Internet into all aspects of personal computing. In fact, Judge Jackson partly acknowledges the groundbreaking work performed by Microsoft in this regard:
Concurrent with its technological innovation, Microsoft put into practice novel business services and licensing arrangements. Just one of many examples addressed by Judge Jackson is the Internet Explorer Access Kit (IEAK), a service that permits an Internet access provider (IAP), such as America Online or Earthlink, to accept a license agreement on the Web and then download and customize Microsoft’s Internet software. When Microsoft began offering this service in September, 1996, it was the first time an Internet access provider could
More than 2,500 access providers—representing more than 95% of the Internet subscriber market in the US—used Microsoft’s IEAK service. (Paragraph 251) Notably, Netscape did not create a similar service until nine months after Microsoft introduced IEAK, and Netscape charged almost $2,000 for something Microsoft offered for free. (Paragraph 250)
Microsoft blended technological innovation with business acumen and thus offered its business partners an integrated package of new technology and new business opportunities. In exploiting these opportunities, Microsoft often offered “valuable consideration”—such as special discounts—to companies like Compaq, IBM, and Intel as an incentive to adopt its Internet Explorer and other Microsoft technology. In fact, Judge Jackson uses the term “valuable consideration” eight times to describe Microsoft’s business agreements with other companies—leaving the honest reader to conclude that Microsoft’s dealings were not some form of coercion but rather value-for-value trades.
For instance, Microsoft beat Netscape in developing a special type of browser that America Online (AOL) required for its Internet service. As a result, the two companies entered into several agreements in 1996. In exchange for AOL’s commitment to use Microsoft’s Internet software, Microsoft promised to provide AOL with unprecedented access to Internet Explorer source code, extensive technical assistance, “free world-wide distribution rights to Internet Explorer,” an assurance “that future versions of its Web browsing software would possess the latest available Internet-related technology features, capabilities, and standards,” and the placement of an AOL icon in a special folder on the Windows desktop. (Paragraph 288)
This relationship has been advantageous to both parties. Overall usage of Internet Explorer has risen dramatically, and as a result of this agreement AOL registered almost one million new users in a single year—11% of its total membership—through its icon on the Windows desktop. This fact alone prompted AOL to state in 1998 that its business arrangement with Microsoft was an “important, valued source of new customers for us.” (Paragraph 302)
Microsoft’s achievements should be held up as a model of how to create and maintain a highly productive, innovative company. Yet Judge Jackson is unable to view any of these facts in a positive light. While Judge Jackson recognizes many of the concrete facts that demonstrate Microsoft’s productive achievement, he is incapable of praising the innovation and business acumen that led to Microsoft’s success.
Instead, his descriptions are clouded by slanted, inflammatory terms that attribute vicious motives to Gates and his company. When Microsoft created new technology to compete with its rivals, Judge Jackson describes the company’s motivation as “fear” and “alarm.” When Microsoft offered incentives to its business partners, Judge Jackson decries this as the “quashing” and “stifling” of rivals. When Microsoft licensed its products only under conditions favorable to its long-term success, Judge Jackson describes these actions as “threats” and “force.” (Judge Jackson uses variations of “threat” no fewer than twenty times and of “force” no fewer than sixteen times to describe Microsoft’s actions.) When Microsoft refused to support its competition, Judge Jackson calls this “punishment.” When Microsoft ingeniously melded technological and business strategies to convince consumers that its products were the best, Judge Jackson sees the company as “seizing control” and trying to “capture” the market.
Even worse than his slanted terminology are his substantive arguments, in which he sets up impossible standards according to which no successful business could escape prosecution. For example, Judge Jackson writes early in his ruling that:
Judge Jackson admits that it is not possible to tell whether Microsoft is in fact charging a monopoly price. Yet he dismisses this lack of evidence as irrelevant because Microsoft could simply be using low prices today in order to “capture” the market and charge exorbitant prices at some future date. In other words, Microsoft is a monopolist if it charges prices that are deemed “too high”—but it is also a monopolist if it charges prices that are too low. By virtue of its dominant position in the industry—that is, by virtue of its success—Microsoft is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t.
Judge Jackson’s visceral antagonism to business is also revealed by his condemnation of Microsoft for winning the browser battle against Netscape when “superior quality was not responsible for the dramatic rise [in] Internet Explorer’s usage share.” (Paragraph 375) Note the implicit premise in this condemnation: If Microsoft hasn’t produced a product that is technologically superior, then only commerce can explain its success. Jackson is repulsed by the notion that successful computer companies require both technological savvy and business skills; in his ideal world, Silicon Valley would be populated solely by computer scientists with nary an “alarming” venture capitalist or “threatening” businessman in sight.
Judge Jackson’s praise for innovation, however, might seem to contradict his overall attack on successful businesses. Technological innovation is a source of business success, is it not? Although Judge Jackson recognizes that technological innovation causes businesses to succeed, he believes that this innovation has another, more legitimate, function. He writes:
Innovation appeals to Judge Jackson not because it leads to the creation of wealth, but rather because it tends to tear down the market leader. He argues that the emergence of the Internet in the mid-90s was one such “inflection point.” (Paragraph 60) Thus, the nature of his support for innovation explains his disgust with Microsoft’s defeat of Netscape: By introducing its browser product sooner, Netscape should have replaced Microsoft—if only Microsoft had not engaged in the “vicious” commercial competition that ensured its continued leadership in the computer industry.
These beliefs ultimately lead Judge Jackson to conclude that Microsoft’s “monopoly power” has “harmed consumers in ways that are immediate and easily discernible.” (Paragraph 409) What are these alleged harms? Judge Jackson claims (wrongly) that the integration of Windows 98 and Internet Explorer does not allow employers to block employees from surfing the Web. He asserts that vast “confusion” reigns among consumers—but beyond one or two offhand references throughout the ruling, he never explains this vague allegation. Moreover, he claims, the integration of Windows and Internet Explorer has created slower computers with more bugs—as if computers are slower and less dependable than they were two years ago! One might regard such mythical “harms” as the laughable allegations of a Luddite—if they did not come from a judge who wields the coercive power of the federal government.
Regardless of how trivial these alleged harms may be, Judge Jackson seems sincerely to believe that Microsoft is acting as a vicious monopolist. Why? He answers this question in the last few sentences of his ruling: “Microsoft’s past success in hurting such companies and stifling innovation ... occur for the sole reason that [other companies and their innovations] do not coincide with Microsoft’s self-interest.” (Paragraph 412) (Emphasis added.)
It takes Judge Jackson more than 200 pages, but in the end he names the essence of his disgust for Microsoft—and the essence of the antitrust laws. In so doing, Judge Jackson exposes the fundamental moral premise dictating his factual distortions, his fallacy-ridden arguments, and his illogical conclusions: a hatred for any form of self-interest.
The morality of altruism or self-sacrifice is often presented as a form of benevolence, as if it simply means being nice to other people. But the actual meaning of this philosophy is a hatred of success. Under this morality, anyone who achieves some extraordinary wealth or distinction owes it to his fellow men to sacrifice what he has earned—including giving away his whole fortune, as and when it is demanded by others. (This is essentially what has been demanded of Bill Gates.) But what about those who have not achieved anything? They are entitled to welfare programs, private charities, protective legislation, and a host of other unearned benefits to be paid for by those who have succeeded. In this system, anyone who earns success through his own effort is to be punished, while anyone who hasn’t exerted any effort and hasn’t attained any success is to be rewarded.
Far from standing for benevolence or good will, such a moral outlook stands for destruction. This code of sacrifice demands an assault on a Microsoft or a Bill Gates. By amassing so much money and achieving so much success, they must be shirking their duty to sacrifice to others. But it does not demand the destruction of the Netscapes of the world because, by virtue of having faltered, they are the “have-nots” who are entitled to benefit from the sacrifice of their more-successful competitors.
Note that the ultimate standard of this moral outlook is not the well-being of the poor, the weak, the downtrodden; has the welfare state ever achieved these aims? Instead, the goal is the sacrifice of the rich, the strong, and the powerful—not to achieve any positive aim, but simply to punish them because they are rich, strong, and powerful.
The altruist connection to antitrust is evident in the mere fact that Judge Jackson could have applied the antitrust laws against Microsoft without finding any harm at all. Although the ostensible purpose of antitrust is to “protect consumers” from alleged “monopolists,” court decisions consistently belie this fiction. In one of the first cases defining the doctrine of antitrust, a large railroad trust defended itself against prosecution by arguing that its price-fixing plan resulted in lower prices for consumers. Since the stated purpose of the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act was to protect consumers, and since consumers actually benefited in this case, the defendant logically concluded that the antitrust laws should not apply to its practices. The Supreme Court rejected this argument and ruled that the railroad trust was guilty. In an illuminating statement, Justice Peckham declared: “In this light it is not material that the price of an article may be lowered. It is in the power of the [monopolist] to raise it.” [iii]
(Interestingly, Justice Peckham was an ardent conservative who was one of the principal advocates of “freedom of contract” in the 19th century—just as Judge Jackson was a Reagan appointee. This proves once again that conservatives are not reliable friends of freedom.)
Continuing to apply the underlying anti-success principle of antitrust, the Supreme Court ruled in 1968 that a newspaper company violated the Sherman Antitrust Act when it fired a distributor for charging rates above an allowable maximum price. The Court found that the newspaper “would not tolerate over-charging” of its customers, and that it even agreed to rehire the distributor if he “discontinued his pricing practice”—that is, if he charged lower prices. Nonetheless, the Court held that the benefit to consumers was irrelevant in finding that the newspaper company acted in “conspiracy” with its other distributors to set prices—thus its actions were “an illegal restraint of trade under Section 1 of the Sherman Act.” [iv]
Harm to consumers has nothing to do with the purpose of antitrust. The antitrust laws are intended only to punish “power”—but since economic power is earned on the free market, this means that the purpose of antitrust is to punish successful business practices.
Antitrust case law is replete with examples of companies being punished, not for any alleged harm, but simply for having the acumen to remain successful in their industries. A ski resort in Aspen, Colorado, was not only found guilty in 1985 of violating the antitrust laws because it successfully competed against its only rival; it was also held to a “duty under antitrust law to help a competitor.”[v] In the famous case against ALCOA in 1945, Judge Hand declared that “the successful competitor, having been urged to compete, must not be turned upon when he wins.” But he contradicted himself in the very next paragraph, concluding that ALCOA
ALCOA’s ability and success, by Hand’s reasoning, was the deciding factor for finding it guilty of violating the antitrust laws.
Given this legal context, Microsoft was doomed before it even set foot in the courtroom. The media, in an anti-Microsoft feeding frenzy, often highlighted mistakes made by Microsoft’s counsel during the lengthy (and ongoing) trial. Yet Microsoft’s attorneys could have performed flawlessly, and Judge Jackson would still have produced the same ruling.
The reason is that Microsoft is an extremely successful company; Gates is a unique combination of technological genius and businessman, reminiscent of earlier American giants like Thomas Edison. Thus, it was irrelevant how hard Microsoft’s attorneys worked, or how much intellectual vigor they brought to their legal briefs and courtroom arguments. These things were irrelevant because no army of lawyers could hide a single, essential fact—the only fact necessary for applying the antitrust laws: Microsoft succeeds at what it does.
The punishment doled out for success is paralysis. Judge Jackson makes it clear that Microsoft must not be permitted to capitalize upon its well-earned success. Because it has created values, it must now relinquish them. Does it matter that Microsoft has earned its success by producing a better product, by offering better incentives to its business partners, and by providing better service to software developers and Internet access providers? No.
Such facts do not matter to a man who believes that a successful company has a moral duty to sacrifice to its lesser rivals—especially when that man has the legal power to coerce the company to obey its alleged duty. With every slanted term and with every absurd conclusion, Judge Jackson practically screams his unstated moral premise: Since Microsoft is a leader in the computer industry, it must sacrifice the values it has created because it has created them.
In his ruling, Judge Jackson claims to set out the objective facts underlying his impending application of the antitrust laws to Microsoft. But the only thing he manages to establish is his own animosity towards commercial success. What drives this animosity is the underlying moral justification for antitrust: altruism’s hatred of success.
The basis for Judge Jackson’s ruling is not any “monopoly” allegedly controlled by Microsoft; it is the monopoly commanded by the morality of altruism over our culture. That monopoly can be seen, unfortunately, in Bill Gates’s sanction of his own destruction in a comment immediately after the ruling, in which he declares that “because of our success, we understand that Microsoft is held to a higher standard, and we accept that responsibility.”[vii] As long as this moral monopoly remains unchallenged, legal doctrines such as antitrust will continue to punish successful businesses.
[i] Bill Gates, The Road Ahead 64 (1995)
[ii] US v. Microsoft, No. 98-1233 (TPJ) (D.D.C. Nov. 5, 1999) (findings of fact). All references to the findings of fact hereafter will refer only to the paragraph number.
[iii] United States v. Trans-Missouri Freight Association, 166 US 290, 324 (1897), emphasis added.
[iv] Albrecht v. Herald Co., 390 US 145, 153 (1968).
[v] Olympia Equipment Leasing Co. v. Western Union Telegraph Co., 797 F.2d 370, 377 (7th Cir. 1986), citing Aspen Skiing Co. v. Aspen Highlands Skiing Corp., 472 US 585 (1985) (holding that a monopolist has a duty to help a competitor).
[vi] US v. Aluminum Co. of America, 148 F.2d 416, 431 (2d Cir. 1945).
Adam Mossoff, Esq., is a former visiting fellow in law at Northwestern University School of Law. Mr. Mossoff earned his M.A. in philosophy from Columbia University and graduated with honors from the University of Chicago Law School.
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