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Saturday, January 08, 2005

Bill Gates: A Portentous Sign?

In a world of political equilibrium, Bill Gates' recent equation of free culture advocates and communists would be laughable - and only the laughable would take it seriously. It should be clear, though, that we no longer live in a world of political equilibrium. Rather, we are in a world that requires us, every day, to take the laughable seriously.

Weblogs and forums, most of them, have failed to do this with Gates' statement. Instead they are treating it as a case of "open mouth, insert foot", by someone who ought to be (and probably is) better informed. In this they risk missing its significance.

If the Gates comment wasn't a malapropism, what was it? I think it's fair to suggest that it was an attempt - one of many - to ineluctably link the fate of Microsoft with corporate and state interests. (You're saying they're not linked? I hear you asking. But Microsoft surely hasn't forgotten its antitrust difficulties with the U.S. Justice Department, to say nothing of its current problems in Europe. Nor, for that matter, its desire to win over wholly Hollywood and the recording industry.) If that is the case - and this is more to the point - then it was also an effort to position advocates of open source, creative commons thinkers, and the like, as onerous threats to those interests. My enemies are your enemies. This seems to be Gates' message to his major customers, past, present, future - the governments of the world, the major corporations, and, by extension, the "monied interests".

Given the rightward lurch of the West, Gates' suggestion, if he succeeds in getting it across, could eventually cast increased suspicion on the ideas of so called free culture. Possibly it could lead to Microsoft getting even more of a free hand in its dealings with competitors (and certain European governments). And even a witchhunt of free culture proponents isn't excluded.

I'm not saying, of course, that all this will flow from a single fleeting comment. What I am saying is that this public statement may reveal Microsoft's strategy for dealing with certain of its opponents, one that it pursues privately for the most part.

So, while it may have only been a stupid statement; judging on the basis of who benefits, it might have been something else indeed. Something that needs to be taken seriously.

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