March 28, 2004

Antitrust v Fraud

Minarchists don't particularly like antitrust law. There's no reason for it other than to punish bigness and all the bad things that companies get away with doing are either grossly destructive of shareholder value (selling below profit to destroy a competitor) and thus a violation of fiduciary duty or are achieved through fraud or other crimes which prosecutors simply do not take on because they are either afraid or bought.

Unfortunately, the regular prosecutorial system has failed us in the case of Microsoft and so I'm, reluctantly, not so mad about the recent EU antitrust decision as some business groups are. It's a case of a bad actor deserving what little punishment they get.

I don't disagree that Microsoft has been a godsend for an awful lot of people. But when their developer community was promised that they would have an even playing field with internal developers, it tilted the entire industry toward Microsoft. Later, when Microsoft admitted that this was a lie, people should have gone to jail. The amount of money that shifted into Microsoft's pockets from this one illegality, this fraud, far eclipses the sins of Enron and Arthur Anderson, both companies that could likewise point to doing an awful lot of good but were destroyed for their sins.

When Microsoft issues an operating system, there is a promise made to their developer community that Microsoft is a partner. You pay them money for the tools to develop your software and there is an understanding that both sides will work together to interoperate as well as possible. Microsoft has violated this trust in the past, purposefully changing their operating system so that major competitors in the applications space are embarrassed and incur extra cost to work around the roadblocks that Microsoft puts up. This is both a violation of contract and a fraud. When you know that if you challenge Microsoft in their application space, you run a strong risk of having the OS shift under you specifically to break your application, most people will be deterred from even trying. This is the major reason why when MS gets a dominant share in an application sector, competition in that sector dies.

The failure of government prosecutors to challenge Microsoft and force them to obey the normal rules is what has made a very good software company into a business monstrosity, a monopoly that everybody is scared of. But how do you fix things? Antitrust is an ill-fitting bandage, with its solution being break up the too powerful entity into smaller chunks that prosecutors can tackle. But nobody even seems to have the stomach to do that, just creating consent decrees and issuing fines.

The cure, in my opinion, is jail time the next time Microsoft engages its dirty tricks division. The lie of equal access to the Win32 API is already exposed and its developer community is drifting away to Unix variants because they now know that the deck is stacked against them on Windows. But until prosecutors gain the technical ability to quickly, and effectively prosecute criminal fraud cases when the fraud is conducted in computer code, we've got a major problem in the free market system.

Posted by TMLutas at March 28, 2004 09:39 AM