Bill Gates says that antitrust regulators should look at tech companies separately, not all at once

Key Points
  • Bill Gates said there are issues specific to social media companies that don't necessarily apply to commerce companies.
  • Gates left Microsoft's board in March.
Microsoft Co-Founder Bill Gates delivers a speech during the conference of Global Fund to Fight HIV, Tuberculosis and Malaria in Lyon, France, on Oct. 10, 2019.
Ludovic Marin | AFP | Getty Images

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates said it's too bad that politicians are scrutinizing several large technology companies at once, because different markets the companies operate in have different problems.

Gates dealt with government pressure as the CEO of Microsoft in the 1990s when the U.S. Justice Department mounted an antitrust case against the company. Microsoft avoided a forced breakup, but agreed to change its practices for years, and paid out billions in fines in other antitrust case that built off the findings in the DoJ case.

Now the U.S. regulators are eyeing Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google, and the Microsoft case represents a case to learn from.

"Certainly the scrutiny is important," Gates said during a Thursday interview at the GeekWire Summit on Thursday. "These companies are shaping communications, commerce — and the politicians have to think of, 'Okay, what are the rules there?' I think it's kind of unfortunate that they're grouping the companies together, because there are so many different issues."

He named four that apply specifically to social media: advertising to children, wiretapping, bullying and the dissemination of false information.

In e-commerce, he said, regulators need to decide if a customer's purchase history and shipping address should be shares across various websites.

"If they want to get serious, they're going to have to focus in, enumerate the issues and them debate them. so I'd say we're kind of at the beginning," Gates told Todd Bishop, a co-founder of GeekWire.

In addition, it's important to follow Europe, which tends to be willing to try regulations before the U.S., Gates said. The European Commission has previously prompted change at Microsoft, and in July Slack, whose team communication app competes with Microsoft's Teams app, said it had filed a complaint against Microsoft with the European Commission, alleging antitrust behavior.

China and South Korea also launched antitrust probes against Microsoft. But Gates has said it was the U.S. case that played a role in Microsoft's failure to become the biggest non-Apple mobile operating system maker, despite being the maker of Windows. Gates stepped down from Microsoft's board of directors in March and has since focused on responding to the coronavirus at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The only person wealthier than Gates today is Jeff Bezos, Amazon's CEO. Bishop asked Gates what advice he would give to Bezos, now that politicians are asking him questions.

"I think the main mistake I made, which was not realizing how important it would be to develop relationships in Washington, be engaged there — these companies are not making the same mistake that I made. They have lots of people," Gates said. "Jeff even has a nice house in Washington, DC. They may even be making some other mistakes. But everybody saw what I did and knows better now."

In videotaped appearances during the antitrust trial, Gates appeared unwilling to directly answer questions, prompting greater criticism. Gates handed the CEO reins to Steve Ballmer in 2000, as the antitrust case was still underway, although he stayed on as chairman for many years after that.

"If you're proud of your work and the effect it's had, that can be interpreted in a negative way," Gates said on Thursday. "Amazon services have been very helpful during the pandemic to get things out, and they've had to ramp up, and that's been a very good thing. So they're justifiably proud of some of their work."

Gates said conversations should focus on how consumers can benefit from competition and how innovation can be fostered.

It should be, he said, "a little less about demonizing the specific people involved. But maybe that's my personal view that others don't share."

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