Antitrust Mania

If Wall Street is right, AOL’s acquisition of Netscape, which was formally announced today, bodes well for Microsoft. (Microsoft’s stock is up almost 10 points in two days.) As has been suggested by every pundit out there, the buoyant vision of a Web dominated by AOL doesn’t fit very well with the Justice Department’s insistence that Microsoft has leveraged its operating- system dominance into control of the Internet.

Even if this new deal does make Justice’s case seem somewhat flimsy, though, the allegations against Microsoft of anti-competitive behavior have clearly had a powerful effect on the business press. In yesterday’s New York Times, for example, one article about the AOL-Netscape merger suggested that Microsoft was “likely to react with fury” to the deal, making the company (note to Brill’s Content writers: Microsoft does, in fact, publish Slate, for whatever that’s worth) sound more like a Chinese warlord than a public corporation. Similarly, framing the future of the Web as a contest between AOL and Microsoft only makes sense if you think that Microsoft really is well-established on the Net. The evidence for that is hardly overwhelming.

Finally, and perhaps most amazing, the hunt for possible antitrust violations is apparently now unceasing, even when it comes to companies that are not Microsoft. In the Wall Street Journal today, a writer suggested that AOL plans to keep Internet Explorer as a default browser for its users because adopting Netscape’s Navigator as its browser would raise antitrust concerns.

Can this be serious? Are we now at the point that AOL wouldn’t be able to use its own technology within its own service because that’s somehow depriving consumers of choice? By that logic, AOL should have to offer a series of different graphic designs, and maybe provide a choice of opening screens, as well. No one has to use America Online, and AOL is nothing like a monopoly. I don’t know if AOL wants to use Navigator as its browser, but to suggest that if it does so it’ll be depriving its consumers of some important benefit is the logical, and insane, extreme of everything that’s now being debated in that Washington courtroom.