High-Tech Trust-Busting a Bust with Public Today

Article excerpt

After barrels of ink and pounds of paper, the case against Microsoft seems to have failed in at least one important court - that of public opinion.

Polls and political tea leaves suggest no widespread public support for a breakup of the company, as the US Justice Department has recommended.

And while that conclusion won't necessarily deter the wheels of justice, it does bespeak a new degree of public comfort with corporate bigness - as well as a disconnect between older social and political values and the so-called New Economy.

One short-term implication of all this could be that the Microsoft issue will take on a higher profile in this year's elections.

So far, the two major candidates for president have been cagey about committing themselves to one side or the other. But with no public enthusiasm for the breakup plan put forth by the Clinton administration, George W. Bush may be emboldened to attack Al Gore on the issue.

But politics aside, the case is already carving itself a place in the history of major antitrust actions as one where Washington is not riding a wave of public support.

Today's quiescent mood is in sharp contrast to the battle that led to the breakup of Standard Oil in 1911. In that battle, President Teddy Roosevelt mounted a populist assault on the empire of John D. Rockefeller that split the entity into 34 companies when all was said and done.

And while AT&T was not viewed as malevolently as Standard Oil when it was taken to court in 1974 by the US government, consumers did seem convinced that breaking up the company would lead to lower prices.

In this case, however, Microsoft is not seen as a public enemy, nor are Americans convinced that breaking up the company will improve consumer choice or prices.

"We're living in a time when bigness is viewed as a good thing. People are not concerned about concentrations of wealth. What they're concerned with is their own stock-market performance," says Bryan Ford, an antitrust specialist at Santa Clara University.

Indeed, despite a long trial whose revelations were widely seen as damaging to Microsoft and its founder, Bill Gates, the public view hasn't changed.

Through the course of last year, as the trial trotted out allegations of illegal behavior by the software behemoth, Microsoft's standing with the public ended as high as it began. In November, as the judge in the case issued "findings of facts" that labeled the company a monopoly, 67 percent of the public had a favorable view of the company and an equal share felt the same about Mr. Gates, according to a Galllup poll.

More to the point, when the Justice Department recommended splitting the company in two, a Gallup poll last weekend found only 21 percent favored a breakup.

"Microsoft products are very popular, and Bill Gates is one of the greatest business celebrities of this century," says Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution, explaining public reluctance to structurally altering the company. …