By Frank James
Is Microsoft engaged in a secret legal war against Google?
It's hard for us outsiders to know one way or another. But a Wall Street Journal story raises some tantalizing possibilities in a report about antitrust lawsuits filed against Google by some of its advertising customers whose lawyer has worked for Microsoft.
It needs to be immediately said that Microsoft has denied being the motive force behind these antitrust lawsuits against its rival.
In a nation where the practice of plausible deniability is a hoary tradition, many people will rightly or wrongly still remain suspicious despite Microsoft's denials. Still, unless we see proof otherwise, Microsoft deserves the benefit of doubt, doesn't it?
A WSJ excerpt:
Seeking $335,000 in unpaid advertising bills, Google Inc. filed suit against a small Internet site in Ohio in October. The complaint was so routine it was just two sentences long.
Google never expected the response it got. Last month, the small Internet site countered with a 24-page antitrust lawsuit against Google, accusing the search-engine giant of a litany of monopolistic abuses.
But what really caught Google's attention was the Internet site's legal counsel: It was Charles "Rick" Rule, long the chief outside counsel on competition issues for Google archrival Microsoft Corp.
"My reaction was, 'What the heck is this?' " says Mark Sheriff, an Ohio attorney who represents Google, speaking of the involvement of Mr. Rule and his powerhouse law firm, Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP, whose antitrust practice is based in Washington, D.C. "It's not every day that a big D.C. law firm like Cadwalader gets involved in a collections lawsuit in Ohio."
Mr. Rule also represents another small Internet firm that has brought an antitrust suit against Google. Meanwhile, in Europe, following complaints about Google that came from, among others, a Microsoft subsidiary in Germany, the European Commission has opened a preliminary antitrust inquiry into the search giant.
To Google, the pattern is clear: It contends Microsoft is embarking on a proxy war against it through various apparently unrelated cases, preparing the ground for a broader antitrust assault of some sort on Google's dominance in the online world. "It's become clear that our competitors are scouring court dockets around the world looking for complaints against Google into which they can inject themselves, learn more about our business practices, and use that information to develop a broader antitrust complaint against us," said a Google spokesman, Adam Kovacevich.
Microsoft calls that nonsense. It says it neither initiated nor is funding the small Internet firms' antitrust lawsuits. The plaintiffs and their legal counsel also deny that Microsoft orchestrated the actions. The Internet firms say they chose Cadwalader and Mr. Rule on their own.
Again, Microsoft may be completely innocent of Google's charges. But if a major technology company wanted to harry a competitor, learn about that competitor's practices and eventually file a major antitrust complaint, this would be a very smart way of going about it. And the best thing is, it's all legal.