Cyberpolitics takes its big byte

March 13, 1998|By Andrew J. Glass

WASHINGTON -- Computer software powers the mad race for campaign cash that fuels politics here. So far, however, the software industry has largely opted out of an incessant process that in 1997 funneled $67 million in soft money to the major political parties.

Take Bill Gates, the baby boomer billionaire. His Microsoft Corp. ranks behind only General Motors Corp. in the value of its stock, which makes Mr. Gates, on any day, worth $45 billion or so.

Mr. Gates clearly believes that the $200 billion that Microsoft has spawned for the U.S. economy came about independently of the political process. Last year, he and his company made $61,000 in political contributions. That includes $30,000 in soft money for the Republicans. (Nothing went to the Democrats.)

Such cheapness carries a cost. With even the most cyber-challenged of politicians having fathomed the dominant role of the information industry in the nation's business and personal life, long-standing strains between the two worlds are on the rise.

Some insiders here view Mr. Gates' disdain the way a prince of the church might view a once-lame man of vast riches who put a dime in the collection box after having the power to walk restored to him at Lourdes.

Mr. Gates defense

When Mr. Gates recently went before a Senate panel, he denied that Microsoft controlled personal computer desktops. But he had a fallback position: Even if you see my firm as a monopoly, not to worry, because we keep prices low. What's more, Mr. Gates foresaw a time when somebody would knock him off his perch, just as Microsoft displaced IBM in the 1980s.

The senators, by and large, were underwhelmed by Mr. Gates' line, despite his iconic status. Meantime, the Justice Department appears no longer content to stick antitrust tacks into Microsoft's corporate hide. Trust busters are primed to flatten the company's software tentacles with a hefty legal hammer.

For a fancy fee, Mr. Gates has hired Haley Barbour, the former Republican national chairman, to help shield his interests. He acted after industry foes retained a law firm that counts Bob Dole among its partners.

These maneuvers aren't likely to narrow the gap between Silicon Valley and the Capital Beltway: The New Balance sneaker crowd and the Gucci loafer crowd see the world in much different ways.

Some here still recall the time when the Pentagon let scientists the world over share the fruits of their work more easily by spending the seed money that gave rise to the Internet. The feds have since given up control. Yet Congress could move to bureaucratize the Internet rather than let Mr. Gates run amok in cyberspace.

To open the West, the government once gave away vast land tracts to the railroads. With the information age having supplanted the industrial one, Mr. Gates should be blocked from emerging as a 21st-century clone of 19th-century robber barons. But even a digital predator shouldn't be obliged to offer legislators legalized bribes, as the infamous Jay Gould once did, to keep from coming to a bad end.

Andrew J. Glass is a Washington-based columnist for Cox Newspapers. His electronic-mail address is aglasoxnews.com

Pub Date: 3/13/98

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