Ralph Nader: Do-gooder or power grabber?

It shouldn't be a surprise that Ralph Nader has gone after Microsoft Corp. For some, the only question was ...

It shouldn't be a surprise that Ralph Nader has gone after Microsoft Corp. For some, the only question was ... why did it take so long?

After all, Nader made his name in the 1960s by taking on General Motors, the symbol of all that was right -- and wrong -- with American capitalism. In the 1990s, arguably the most influential company in the world is Microsoft, and its tremendous sway over the computer industry has attracted as many critics as customers.

But some observers wonder whether Nader has latched onto the Microsoft issue largely to promote his own causes.

"There is a certain contingent of players within the Beltway that thrive on power. These supposed consumer advocates now have very little power over what Microsoft and others in the industry do. They can only gain by increasing government control over Microsoft, Sun, Cisco, and the other big (technology) companies," said Tom W. Bell, director of telecommunications and technology studies for the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank.

James Gattuso, vice president for policy development at Citizens for a Sound Economy Foundation, agreed that Nader is looking to increase his own influence in a situation in which the public doesn't seem to be at risk.

"I think that generally he's concerned that he sees an industry out there that's been very successful without much involvement from Washington. And that may bother him," said Gattuso. Citizens for a Sound Economy Foundation is a Washington-based advocacy group that lobbies for less government intervention in business affairs.

"I'm not in a position to say what his ego is, but unfortunately, no matter what his motives are, a lot of people still look at Ralph as representing consumers," he said. "That's not the case."

Nader argues that the victims of Microsoft's power are, first, competitors who can't fight Microsoft's monopoly powers; and ultimately, consumers, because they will end up with fewer choices in the market.

Nader said his two-day conference that begins Thursday -- called "Appraising Microsoft and Its Global Strategy" -- "will bring more people out to discuss this. Many people are frustrated by Microsoft's dominance."

Mark Murray, a Microsoft spokesman, said Nader's conference looks more like a witch hunt than a fact-finding mission. "We don't understand Mr. Nader's motivation, and think it's a little bit sad."

And the Cato Institute's Bell is unclear as to what Nader is trying to fix. Microsoft has made a browser that in many reviews is considered at least the equal to Netscape Navigator, and some claim it's easier to use. And the product is given away free. This against the backdrop of a software and hardware industry that is one of the most competitive in the world.

"Ralph Nader looks at this and says, 'Let's change it.' "

Nader has a long track record of serving in the public interest, starting with his 1965 muckraking masterpiece, "Unsafe at Any Speed," which challenged the safety of GM's Corvair. Subsequent targets have included the nuclear-power industry, the logging industry, and even the American political process -- he ran for president in 1992 and '96.

Nader is likely to be named one of the 100 most influential Americans by Time magazine. So is Bill Gates.

-- Lisa Bowman contributed to this story.


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