Government gets more than it bargained for in Microsoft antitrust e-mails
WASHINGTON (AP) — Uncle Sam is getting a lesson in junk e-mail, compliments of the Microsoft antitrust case.
For the first time, the government opened its required public comment period in a case to allow citizens to use e-mail rather than letters to sound off.
The result: 30,000 messages that ranged from 2,800 form letters to pranksters’ pornography to the blunt and brief: “I hate Microsoft.”
Only about 10 percent had anything substantive to say, officials said, calling the volume unprecedented.
E-mail lets regular people get into the act, said Dana Hayter, a former Justice Department antitrust lawyer.
“You’re more likely to get a higher volume of comments from people who are not as likely to have legal or economic training, but who likely have a strongly held view of Microsoft or on the conduct of the investigation,” Hayter said.
In a report to the judge handling the case, the Justice Department separated the wheat from the chaff and concluded that opinion from senders was running 2-to-1 against the antitrust settlement with Microsoft announced last fall.
The department called only 2,900 comments “substantive,” ranging from a one or two page discussion to detailed reports exceeding 100 pages. Forty-five comments are “major,” according to Justice. Officials declined to characterize their contents.
Under federal law, such a comment period was required before a federal judge could decide whether the settlement is in the public interest. U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly plans to question the department and Microsoft about the comments and other issues Friday.
The flood of public comment in the Microsoft case — spurred by the e-mail opportunity — far outpaced other cases.
In the last antitrust settlement of this magnitude, the settlement that broke up AT&T, officials got about 8,750 pages of comments but never said how many individuals responded.
Courts have found that Microsoft violated antitrust laws and maintained an illegal monopoly in the computer software market. A judge originally ordered the company broken in two as punishment, but that ruling was reversed on appeal.
Since then, the Justice Department and half of the 18 states that sued the software maker have reached a settlement awaiting Kollar-Kotelly’s approval.
That settlement would prevent Microsoft from participating in exclusive deals that could hurt competitors and require that it release some of its blueprints to its flagship Windows operating system to software developers.
Justice and the judge are supposed to review the comments and the law to see whether the settlement is in the public interest. It is far from certain, however, whether the number or content of the comments will sway the outcome.
In 1995, U.S. District Judge Stanley Sporkin cited public comments when he tossed out a settlement offer between Microsoft and the government in a related case, only to be overturned by an appeals court.
The government and Microsoft said they still are considering whether to modify the settlement based on the comments. Microsoft spokesman Jim Desler said possible changes would not be major but “more on the lines of refinement.”
Both sides also asked the court to limit a review hearing to a single day in March, saying they want few, or no, outside parties to testify.
Despite the electronic rubbish, Hayter said e-mail is worth the hassle.
“It encourages people who might not otherwise sit down and draft a piece-of-paper letter to express their views,” Hayter said. “I don’t think there’s a downside to encouraging public comment.”
Justice implored the court to relieve it from its duty to publish all the messages — minus the junk mail and porn — in the Federal Register. That would cost the Antitrust Division about $4 million, officials said.
Instead, the department proposes a computer age solution to solve the computer age problem: Putting them on a Web site and CD-ROM.
On the Net: Justice Department: http://www.usdoj.gov