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Democrats attack Gates' "charity"

Australian Democrats IT spokesperson Brian Greig has lashed out at Microsoft chairman and chief software architect Bill Gates over local charity contributions Gates announced as part of his visit to Australia yesterday. Gates locked arms with Prime Minister John Howard to announce the contributions before a tightly vetted contingent of media in Sydney yesterday.

Australian Democrats IT spokesperson Brian Greig has lashed out at Microsoft chairman and chief software architect Bill Gates over local charity contributions Gates announced as part of his visit to Australia yesterday.

Gates locked arms with Prime Minister John Howard to announce the contributions before a tightly vetted contingent of media in Sydney yesterday. Under the program Microsoft will spend AU$40 million over the next five years to help improve technology literacy in under-privileged communities.

But Greig today characterised the Microsoft's community welfare contributions as tainted charity.

According to Greig, the software tycoon's global philanthropy exercises carry a hidden agenda to persuade beneficiary governments to reverse policies promoting the use of open source software.

"Bill Gates is a very astute and very wealthy business and he doesn't do anything based purely on generosity or philanthropy," said Greig.

Greig described the AU$40 million sum as "a drop in the ocean" compared to the estimated AU$1 billion in revenue the software giant generates in Australia, and helped the company "to create a soft cuddly face" for the public.

Greig claims Gates' whistle-stop visit to the country was more likely to have been motivated by NSW Commerce Minister John Della Bosca's intention to end the state government's reliance on proprietary software.

Greig claimed that there were precedents for the case that countries that had adopted pro-open source stances reversed their position after accepting Gates' charity.

He hinted at the case of the Indian government, which was contemplating a similar strategy to NSW government up until November 2002 when Gates announced he would pump over US$500 million into the economy.

According to reports at the time, in addition to assistance from Gates' highly publicised global vaccination programs Gates committed US$100 million to help combat AIDS in India. The remaining US$400 million went into to expanding the company's activities and 'improving computer literacy' in the country.

As if to reinforce his point, Greig echoed a metaphor that Microsoft is beginning to see as a threat to its image, describing the charities' decisions to accept Gate's "largesse" as embarking on a form of addiction in which they will become dependent on Microsoft for future software.

"Once a group is 'addicted' to a certain form of proprietary software, moving away from that framework can be very difficult and very expensive," he said.

The comments echo those of Sergio Amadeu, president of the Brazilian National Institute for Information Technology. Amadeu faced legal action in Brazil early this month for comparing Microsoft's activities in giving software to developing governments for free to that of "drug dealers".

Open Source Industry Australia called the lawsuit an unjustifiable attack on freedom of expression and defended the comments, claiming they bore striking similarity to those they alleged Gates himself made in 1998.

OSIA alleged that Gates, in addressing the question of software piracy in China, said:

"As long as they are going to steal it, we want them to steal ours. They'll get sort of addicted, and then we'll somehow figure out how to collect sometime in the next decade".

OSIA believes the lawsuit was pursued in response the Brazilian government's decision to shift 300,000 of its PCs from Windows to Linux.

"If Mr Gates can make comments that allude to Microsoft's practices getting users addicted to their software, then Microsoft has no grounds to claim that Mr. Amadeu's comments are defamatory," wrote OSIA in a statement released last week.

In January 2002 a British charity criticised the activity of the Gates-funded Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisations (GAVI) Africa claiming it created new markets for costly vaccines while doing little to tackle major diseases.

Microsoft Australia declined ZDNet Australia's  requests for comment on this report.