"Lobbyists Tied to Microsoft Wrote Citizens'
Letters " from the Los
Angeles Times, August 23, 2001. © 2001 Los
Angeles Times. Reprinted with permission.
Lobbyists Tied to Microsoft Wrote Citizens'
Aug 23, 2001
Los Angeles Times' Home Edition, Part A, Page A-1
By JOSEPH MENN and EDMUND SANDERS, TIMES STAFF WRITERS
Letters purportedly written by at least two dead people landed
on the desk of Utah Atty. Gen. Mark Shurtleff earlier this year,
imploring him to go easy on Microsoft Corp. for its conduct as
The pleas, along with about 400 others from Utah citizens, are
part of a carefully orchestrated nationwide campaign to create
the impression of a surging grass-roots movement. But it may be
The targets of the campaign, attorneys general of some of the
18 states that have joined the Justice Department in suing Microsoft,
have figured out the campaign's origins, and they're fuming.
The campaign, orchestrated by a group partly funded by Microsoft,
goes to great lengths so that the letters appear to be spontaneous
expressions from ordinary citizens. Letters sent in the last month
are printed on personalized stationery using different wording,
color and typefaces--details that distinguish those efforts from
common lobbying tactics that go on in politics every day. Experts
said there's little precedent for such an effort supported by
a company defending itself against government accusations of illegal
"I've never heard of it before," said UC Berkeley business
professor David Vogel. "If any firm should be at the cutting
edge of using technology for lobbying, it should be Microsoft."
Regulators became suspicious of the ruse after noticing that
the same sentences appear in the letters and that some return
addresses appear invalid.
"It's an obvious corporate attempt to manipulate citizen
input," said Rick Cantrell, community relations director
for the Utah attorney general.
"You can just tell these were engineered. When there's a
real groundswell, people walk in, they fax, they call. We get
Microsoft officials, whose aggressive lobbying tactics in the
antitrust battle have raised eyebrows in the past, said they simply
are responding to the lobbying efforts of competitors.
"There's been a political campaign waged against Microsoft
for a number of years by well-funded special interest companies
like AOL, Oracle, Sun Microsystems and their trade associations,"
Microsoft spokesman Vivek Varma said. "It's not surprising
that companies and organizations that support Microsoft are mobilizing
to counter that lobby."
Indeed, Microsoft's competitors have helped craft some of the
legal strategy against the company, and they actively lobby against
the Redmond, Wash., software firm. Oracle, for one, was criticized
for hiring a private investigator that combed through a pro-Microsoft
group's trash. But those companies say they haven't tried to drum
up activism by the public in the Microsoft antitrust battle.
Microsoft referred questions about the new campaign to the group
running it, Americans for Technology Leadership, which gets some
money from Microsoft but won't say how much. ATL was founded in
1999 as a spinoff of the Assn. for Competitive Technology, another
People working for ATL call residents and at first say they are
conducting a poll about the Microsoft case. People who express
support for Microsoft are sent letters to sign, along with handstamped,
pre-addressed envelopes to their state attorney general, to President
Bush and to their members of Congress.
Asked about the relationship between the telephone calls to citizens
and the subsequent letters, ATL Executive Director Jim Prendergast
initially said those who agreed the prosecution was misguided
merely were given suggestions about what to use in drafting their
"We gave them a few bullet points, but that's about the
extent of it," he said.
Asked why some phrases were identical, Prendergast then conceded
the letters were written by his operation. "We'd write the
letter and then send it to them," he said. "That's fairly
Engineers of grass-roots campaigns prize the most individualistic
expression, knowing pre-printed missives have far less effect.
"The more orchestrated it gets, the less influence it has,"
said Stanford University business professor David Baron, who has
written on political activism by corporations. "Handwritten
letters that are written by human beings can make a difference."
It's not clear how many states are targeted in the campaign,
or how much is being spent to generate the letters.
Grass-roots specialists typically charge $25 to $75 for each
letter from ordinary citizens and much more for letters from public
officials or celebrities, said Nancy Clack of Precision Communications,
a political communications company. Because each Microsoft letter
is different, the cost of the ATL campaign probably is on the
high end of the scale. If the group is aiming for 100 letters
in each of the 18 states, the tab easily could exceed $100,000.
The letter-writing exercise is part of a larger plan to sway
Congress and encourage prosecutors to pursue a settlement in advance
of a court hearing on how the company should be punished for illegally
maintaining its monopoly on computer operating systems.
The maker of Windows and other software also has stepped up campaign
donations, becoming the fifth-largest soft-money donor to the
national Republican and Democratic parties in 1999-2000, and it
has hired a slew of well-connected lobbying firms.
To assist it in the grass-roots campaign, Microsoft turned to
two of the nation's top political advocacy groups: Boston-based
Dewey Square Group, co-founded by Al Gore campaigner Michael Whouley,
and Phoenix-based DCI/New Media, led by Republican strategist
One crop of letters began rolling into state offices this spring.
Quietly distributed by another Microsoft-supported group, Citizens
Against Government Waste, those letters were identical except
for the signature.
Minnesota Atty. Gen. Mike Hatch said he got about 300 of those.
"It's sleazy," he said. "This is not a company
that appears to be bothered by ethical boundaries."
State officials said they won't be swayed by the effort, and
Hatch responded with his own mailings to the senders, explaining
Some recipients wrote back by hand, apologizing for passing along
the Microsoft-inspired letters. "I sure was misled,"
Utah officials found that two prefab letters from Citizens Against
Government Waste bore the typed names of dead people. Those names
had been crossed out by family members who signed for them. And
another letter came from "Tuscon, Utah," a city that
In recent weeks, the strategy was refined to engineer more-individualized
letters to state officials and the Bush administration.
Iowa Atty. Gen. Tom Miller's office has received more than 50
anti-lawsuit letters in the last month from state residents.
No two letters are identical, but the giveaway lies in the phrasing.
Four Iowa letters include this sentence: "Strong competition
and innovation have been the twin hallmarks of the technology
Three others use exactly these words: "If the future is
going to be as successful as the recent past, the technology sector
must remain free from excess regulation."
Some residents who fielded ATL's calls believed the states themselves
were soliciting their views, according to the attorneys general
of Minnesota, Illinois and Utah.
When a caller started asking Minnesotan Nancy Brown questions
about Microsoft, she thought she was going to get help figuring
out what was wrong with her computer.
Instead, the caller wanted to know whether she agreed that federal
and state antitrust prosecutors had better things to do than attack
the leader of the high-tech economy.
"They were trying to get me to say the government had no
business interfering with Microsoft," Brown said. "I
said I didn't agree with that."
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