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In India, Bill Gates Does Well By Doing "Good"

License to Bill

by LILA RAJIVA

To his fans, a Randian free-market hero, an Atlas barely quivering under the Himalayan chain of operating systems, software packages and security patches with which he feeds the hungering cyber-masses. Or as one Indian model squealed orgasmically, "Mr. Gates, you are my idea of the ideal man. You are rich, and you are powerful."

And a philanthropist to…er.. boot…. The Gates foundation, which is worth $30 billion, (£17 billion), is now the largest charity run by a single philanthropist or private company And Gates says he intends to give away 90 per cent of his $50 billion fortune.

On September 22 this year, Microsoft made its latest corporate raid on humanitarianism, pledging to partner with the Indian Ministry of Communication and Information Technology in seven crucial areas. The deal, largely unnoticed by the media, was struck at Microsoft’s Redmond, Washington headquarters with Minister Dayanidhi Maran.

Microsoft offered a new Windows XP Starter Edition licensed and built just for India in nine Indian languages as well as English; it "adopted" 100 schools in 6 states to provide an interactive learning environment and pledged to support an Indian government program to establish 100,000 rural kiosks with a range of affordable products and services; it also pledged to deliver a broadband and PC package targeted to first time users at an affordable monthly installment, to set up and fund with 2 million dollars an E-governance Center of Excellence for pilot programs, and to collaborate with Indian agencies and scientists to research Indic language computing technologies and increase security. (1)

Shades of Rockefeller, who spent the latter part of his life guiltily giving away the fortune he’d amassed. Maybe His Billness has taken to reading the geek blogs with their unkindest cuts. Or Greg Palast and that crack of his about Blackbeard the Pirate has gotten to him. (2)

Who steals my purse steals trash …etc. etc.

Or maybe, there’s a much simpler answer.

Gate’s Way to India

Three years ago, in a far more widely publicized move, Gates visited India to donate $100 million to fight HIV and $421 million as investment in new software development in India, including a Hindi version of Windows XP. This was duly applauded in no less than five puff pieces in the NY Times, one of which was authored by St. Bill himself (Slowing the Spread of AIDS in India, Nov 9, 2002).

During the visit, Chandrababu Naidu, India’s very own Prince of Neo-liberal Darkness, committed Andhra Pradesh state to use Microsoft products for all future computerisation.

Naidu was then at the height of his international celebrity what with the Wall Street Journal dubbing him "a model for fellow state leaders" and Newsweek granting him Ph.D’s he hadn’t earned. Even the gaseous Thomas Friedman emoted on the subject. Yet, the Gates endorsement aside, Andhra was at the time not even in the top three states in actual IT performance and later slipped even further.(3)

Some speculated that Gates was applying PR salve to the scratches inflicted by his anti-trust scuffle with the Department of Justice in 2000. Others accused him of hyping the AIDS crisis when he claimed that the 4 million infected in India were going to multiply into 25 million by the end of the decade.

But all this was besides the real point. The AIDS donation was a mere quarter of the moolah Microsoft was lobbing at the Indian computer market and astute journalists noted the contrast between the Bill-g fan club in Delhi and Cyberabad (as the Andhra capital of Hyderabad was nicknamed) and the media neglect of Richard Stallman, President of the Free Software Foundation, who was in India at the same time. Stripped of the AIDS hoopla, Gates’ visit was actually a major skirmish in Microsoft’s ongoing jihad against the free soft ware, GNU+Linux, which Stallman was promoting and which is broadly popular with governments all over the world, especially in developing countries.

And no wonder. While Microsoft has a perpetual and costly license and its proprietary system is closed to innovation, GNU+Linux is free and open to technical development. As a matter of fact, the Indian government had just then issued a directive to move from Windows to open source. The Gates donation was nothing more than a fat bribe to the government to drop GNU+Linux and let Microsoft lock itself into the mammoth profits ripening for harvest down the road. (4)

Although some states rejected the deal and the Indian President later made it clear publicly that free soft ware was the way to go, the pressure worked. While the party of neo-liberal economics, the BJP, was trounced at the polls in 2004, now, a year later, under cover of the supposedly more enlightened Congress, Microsoft has managed to hack its way into the Indian market like one of its own viral nightmares.

It’s not the first time that the company has used bribery, arm-twisting, and government fiat to extend its massive global monopoly.

‘Gated’ Communities

In 1976, one year after the company was founded, Gates insisted in an "open letter to hobbyists" that a market existed for software, which at the time was not commercialized since it built so intrinsically on ideas that had gone before. Gates entered the operating systems market simply by buying up rights for a clone of the de facto standard at the time, renaming it MS-DOS, and signing up with IBM who underwrote the costs. With that significant financial advantage, Gates was able to undersell his competitors, squeeze out rivals like Word Perfect and Lotus and eventually displace IBM as the monopolist in town. Contrary to the claims that he’s a visionary genius, Gates was completely uninterested in the Internet until WebTV brought it to PCs. Then faced with the threat that the PC market might shift to digital TVs, he bought out WebTV, just as he was to buy out the threat of free email service posed by Hotmail in the 90s.

The little companies develop the technology and Gates gobbles them up, a free-loader and parasite feasting off the hard-won innovations of others, a threat to any genuinely competitive market. Once competition is wiped out, technology itself gets stifled since there’s no incentive to come up with something better

Then there’s vendor lock-in–the use of proprietary formats like Microsoft Word (for text files) that are not publicly available so that other software can read them only with an expensive license. That makes people unable to move to another vendor without significant switching costs. Donating Microsoft to schools is therefore only a way to, well, bill future generations who’ll need to pay the license fee.

Gates has similar plans for the Internet. In 2004, for instance, Microsoft asked the Internet Engineering Task Force to patent a mail protocol designed to forbid free software entirely. The IETF rejected Microsoft’s protocol. Even so, the company said it would try to convince major Internet Service Providers to use it. The goal is clear–fence off large parts of the net from the public through patents or fire-walls, control what the public has access to or direct it where it’s allowed to go. Turn the Internet into an Intranet. (5)

It’s the tech version of the enclosure system that cut up the old feudal estates and deprived the peasantry of access to land: A ‘gated’ cyber community policed by the state.

That’s what’s happening at home and as far afield as the Philippines, for instance, where even in 1998, police were enforcing an intellectual property law passed by the Ramos government under pressure from Microsoft, other U.S. companies, and the U.S. government. The new law replaced the older system of ‘compulsory licensing’ under which the government had granted licenses to Philippine businesses to sell foreign books and software at a locally viable rate, paying back a certain amount to the original companies in the form of royalties. Under the new law, schools were forced to follow a prohibitively expensive one-computer-one-software rule which Microsoft enforced through the courts and police raids. (6)

A glance at Microsoft’s anti-piracy web page shows that such raids are not exceptional. Since January 2000, 73 civil cases totaling over 17 million dollars involving Internet piracy were settled in the U.S. alone. And this doesn’t account for civil cases outside the U.S. and for criminal cases all over the world. Significantly, Microsoft’s web-page also boosts the 1994 World Trade Organization agreement for granting American businesses access to global markets and protecting intellectual property, and it displays a form letter urging Congress to reaffirm its commitment to WTO and the whole intellectual property racket.

Billing the Public

And racket it is. Here’s what Gates himself had to say about intellectual property in 1991:

"If people had understood how patents would be granted when most of today’s ideas were invented and had taken out patents, the industry would be at a complete standstill today…A future start-up with no patents of its own will be forced to pay whatever price the giants choose to impose." (7)

Of course, that was way back when before Gates himself became one of the giants. Now he labels anyone who says exactly the same thing a communist. And he’s not shy about roping in government agencies to work his protection racket. I let you take some of the swag; you enforce my license..

One of Gates’ tricks is to lump patent protection with copyright, although patents have nothing to do with copyright protection, which is granted automatically when someone writes a programs or code, and which no one, not even Stallman, disputes. Software patents, on the other hand, don’t cover programs or code but things that are much more general and vague–ideas, techniques, algorithms. If each of those were patented, every large program would generate hundreds of lawsuits against developers and even users. So, the only beneficiary of patents are mega-corporations that each hold thousands of them and can afford cross-licensing with other mega-corporations. Everyone else loses. Small companies haven’t the resources to keep up and since small companies have historically been the innovators, that means innovation gets hobbled.

None of this can be passed off even by rabid free-marketers as private enterprise. At every step the state has to be shanghaied into the game to preserve and extend the company’s monopoly in the cyber-community through licenses, patents, and the whole intellectual property regime.

That’s why few keen observers think that Microsoft really fouled up with the Feds in 2000. How on earth could someone who owns the Feds be in any serious danger from them? Here’s just a partial list of the powerful people connected with the government’s anti-trust case against Gates in 2000:

Patrick Leahy, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee (which questioned Microsoft about the antitrust settlement): Received funds for re-election from Microsoft.

Phil Bond, Undersecretary of Commerce for Technology and the highest-ranking appointed official dealing with technology: Former top aide to U.S. Rep. Dunn (R-Wash.), whose district includes Microsoft’s hometown of Redmond.

Connie Partoyan, Bond’s top aide at Commerce: Former executive vice president of TechNet (a Microsoft-funded trade association) and lobbyist for the law firm Preston, Gates, Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds (the Gates in the firm is Bill-g’s father).

William Kolasky, Appointed deputy assistant attorney general for international enforcement for the Justice Department’s antitrust division in October 2001: One-time lawyer for the Association for Competitive Technology, whose largest contributor is Microsoft; wrote an amicus brief supporting Microsoft in its antitrust lawsuit.

Ed Gillespie, Former head of the Republican National Committee: Once a Microsoft lobbyist; partner in Quinn Gillespie & Associates to whom Microsoft paid $1.2 million in lobbying fees between 2001 and 2003.

Richard Wallis, Chair of the American Bar Association’s antitrust section: Microsoft’s associate general counsel. The antitrust section influences how much oversight federal judges have over antitrust settlements. In late June 2005, a U.S. appeals court rejected a ruling that Microsoft’s 2001 deal with the government was too lenient.

Microsoft also finances or influences droves of candidates and lobbyists either directly or indirectly, through the Business Software Association–a trade association for software developers that makes sweetheart deals for Microsoft–or through Daddy Gates’ expanded law firm, Preston Gates & Ellis, where former Democratic Congressman Lloyd Meeds, and Emanuel Rouvelas, former counsel to the Senate Commerce Committee, can both be found roosting. The list of lobbyists for Bill is tediously long and familiar: Dick Armey, Vin Weber, John Podesta, Bob Archer, Vic Fazio, Lloyd Bentsen….

And talking of roosting, guess who’s on the board of the Washington Post? One Melinda Gates….what are the chances of the press doing any real outing of William the Monopolist? (8)

Here’s how the game gets played. In June 2000, a US judge, Thomas Jackson, rules that Microsoft used deceit, coercion and software sabotage to gain its monopoly. Then, only three days later, at the European Business Summit, Mario Monti, the Europeans Community’s head honcho for busting up cartels and monopolies, parties it up with Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer–well-known for his obscene anti-GNU+Linux rhetoric–all the while indoctrinating assorted Shills for Bill in government and business in the art of forming ‘strategic alliances’ between corporations to ‘promote innovation’–the Softies’ latest PR gloss for racketeering. (9)

So much for private enterprise.

What the claptrap about free-market amounts to is that Gates profits off computer and Internet technology developed almost completely at public expense by the Pentagon, the publicly-subsidized engine that drives the American economy.

The same goes for Gates’ new-found love, India, where the knowledge-base that’s attracting private business was developed soon after Independence through the completely public system of IIT’s (Indian Institutes of Technology). The seven IIT campuses, which accept less than 2% of the almost 200,000 applications they receive and have perhaps the most rigorous engineering curricula in the world, churn out graduates who play leading roles at companies like Microsoft, Intel, and Sun Microsystems. But they cost students only $700 a year for tuition, room, and board. The rest of the nearly $3,000 bill–well over a hundred thousand rupees, a huge sum in India–is footed by the government, i.e., the Indian public. Meanwhile, every year, almost 2000 IITans, 2/3 of its graduates, vanish into the private sector in the U.S. (10)

So when Bill-g talks about working with the Indian government and scientists and giving away Windows to school-kids, we have to wonder who’s really the benefactor.

Maybe it’s the Indian public, which is subsidizing a system that fattens American multinationals and subsidizing it twice, first by paying for government-issue Microsoft licenses and then by paying to train the brains that Microsoft siphons off into its lucrative patent regime.

Is this ungenerous? Perhaps it would be if we were talking about some other company. It would be ungenerous if we insisted, say, on bringing up WalMart’s dealings with labor when it was rescuing people so magnificently during Katrina.

But Gates is a late-comer to philanthropy, who adopted it from all appearances to refurbish an image battered by incredibly predatory business tactics and Gates’ charity work has an inexplicable way of following him to places where he has business interests.

No one denies the great good that donations to the poor and sick do in India and else where. But consider that the money for that philanthropy came from ruthless business practices; consider that the ideas Gates claims as his own were largely stolen from countless unsung others; consider that by driving out leaner and more innovative talents from the software industry, he’s hampered software development and increased the costs of software operation enormously, kept prices far higher than they should have been, and in effect denied vital technology to masses of people. Consider all this and perhaps we can hold off on canonization for a bit.

LILA RAJIVA is a free-lance journalist and author of "The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the American media," (Monthly Review Press). She can be reached at: lrajiva@hotmail.com

Notes:

(1) "Bill Gates’ 7 Point India Plan," Rediff India Abroad, September 22, 2005.

(2) Greg Palast, "Of Blackbeard and Bill Gates," Observer, London, June 25, 2000.

(3) P. Sainath, "Chandrababu: Image and Reality," India Together, July 2004.

(4) Ajit Ranade, "Close Encounter Of Bill & Dick–A shot-in-the-arm for GNU+Linux," The Financial Express, November 22, 2002

(5) Anna Couey, Joshua Karliner, "Noam Chomsky on Microsoft and Corporate Control of the Internet," CorpWatch, May 6, 1998.

(6) Roberto Verzola, "Philippine Greens Protest the Visit of Bill Gates," CorpWatch, March 20, 1998

(7) Cited in Maarten Vanheuverswyn, "Bill Gates, Saviour of the World?" marxist.com, March 17, 2005.

(8) Tom Adelstein, "Following Bill Gates’ GNU+Linux Attack Money," LXer.com, June 29, 2005.

(9) Palast, Observer, June 25, 2000, Ibid.

(10) "Imported from India," CBS Sixty Minutes, June 23, 2003.