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May 12, 1997

Should Microsoft's millionaires face social obligations?

This week's column is not about how to improve your PC's performance with a new gizmo; it's about how to improve the ethics of the entire computer industry through your actions.

After years of giving our money to Microsoft for almost every personal computer system bought in this country, we've turned many Microsoft executives into multimillionaires. Although business success at this level is to be admired, it raises a serious question: Do Microsoft's millionaires have any obligation to use their phenomenal wealth in socially responsible ways?

Many Microsoft alumni have invested in projects that clearly benefit their entire community. For example, early Microsoft millionaire Ida Cole decided that she wasn't going to let Seattle's Paramount Theatre be turned into a parking lot; she and other wealthy Microsoft employees bought it and restored it to its original glory.

One of Cole's compatriots, a former Word for Windows product manager named Tina Podlodowski, won a seat on the Seattle City Council. She now spends her time building support for a bond measure to fund new neighborhood parks and other facilities.

Other Microsoft millionaires, however, have started spending their enormous wealth in darker ways. Co-founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen are, of course, two of the wealthiest Microsoft millionaires; Gates is now worth $30 billion and Allen more than $10 billion. But although Gates seems content with making sundry donations to charities and a few political friends here and there, Allen has turned to making deals on a different level.

Allen owns a basketball team, the Portland Trailblazers, and he recently decided to buy a football team, the Seattle Seahawks. But the Seahawks, he said, wouldn't be of interest to him unless he also got a new stadium and other revenue bonuses.

In a stunning display of the corrupting influence of money in politics, Allen spent more than $1 million in only three months lobbying Washington state's small legislature. Narrow majorities in both houses approved a bill that allocates benefits to Allen of $300 million in state subsidies plus $300 million in interest and finance charges for a new stadium -- benefits almost totally paid for by imposing higher taxes on the average consumer.

Normally, a statewide people's vote on a regular election date is required to approve a raise in taxes. But Allen's lobbyists inserted specific provisions into the bill that stipulated a shortened election schedule to benefit Allen. This means that the vote will not be held in November but rather at a quickie football-only election on June 17, just 52 days after referral to the people. The modification allows almost no time for citizens to mount a campaign questioning this gift to America's third-wealthiest man. (For Allen's side, see

When Microsoft millions are used to turn a state into a banana republic where election laws can be altered to suit one person's interests, we in the computer industry must stand up and say, "This is not the behavior we expect of our business leaders."

Other computer columnists and I have made donations to a campaign to stop this charade. (Full disclosure: I have agreed to serve as treasurer of this campaign.) You can contribute donations by writing to No on 48, 2608 Second Ave., Suite 310, Seattle, Wash., 98121, or by calling toll-free (888) 740-8400. Stay tuned and I'll keep you informed.

Brian Livingston is the co-author of Windows 95 Secrets Gold and four other Windows books (IDG Books). Send tips to or fax: (206) 282-1248.

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Copyright © 1997 by InfoWorld Publishing Company


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