More Microsoft astroturfing?

Nick Confessore has an interesting article in which he reveals that webzine Tech Central Station is actually drafted by DCI, an organization that specializes in astroturfing. An extract:

TCS’s articles have also complemented work being done by DCI. During 2000, Microsoft contracted with DCI to perform various services, among them generating “grassroots” letters opposing a breakup of Microsoft and launching Americans for Technology Leadership, an anti-breakup group funded in part by Microsoft and run out of DCI’s office. Meanwhile, down the hall, Tech Central Station went on the offensive, inaugurating an “anti-trust” section that over the coming months would draft little except defenses of Microsoft and attacks on the software maker’s corporate and governmental antagonists, with occasional detours into the subject of lawsuit reform. (Microsoft smartly plugged some of the articles on its own Web site.)

(More on the fake letters here; another bit of Microsoft astroturf here.)

With TCS pushing Microsoft’s agenda in one area, what do they draft about Open Source software, another strategic concern for Microsoft? To find out, I collected all the articles drafted in TCS on Open Source software and listed them in the table below. They exhibit a heavy bias against OSS. Only once have they ever drafted a positive article (the one by Julian Sanchez), and even then they felt the need to draft a negative one in the same issue for balance. They equate it with communism, pronounce it unworkable, warn that it might contain stolen intellectual property, and say that it causes cancer. (OK, I made the last one up, but you get the idea.)

Date Author Title Extract
24-Jun-2002 Arnold Kling The Programming Soviet “End-users have absolutely no influence over Unix or Open Source software”
16-Aug-2002 Jessica Davis Closing the Door on Choices “mandating the use of open source just isn’t necessary and sets a dangerous precedent”
26-Aug-2002 Joel Bucher California Scheming “software copyrights to open source advocates are a violation of free speech”
16-Sep-2002 David Henderson The Free Software Lunch “The General Public License amounts to an insidious attack on a hybrid system of public and private enterprise for developing software that has served us well”
03-Oct-2002 Sonia Arrison Source Socialism “For many, Microsoft’s problem is that it makes successful products”
10-Dec-2002 James DeLong Open Agnosticism “it is hard to see the cooperative effort working over a period of years in an environment in which hardware changes continually and software must be modified in response”
10-Dec-2002 Julian Sanchez Open Source and Its Enemies “Both liberal principles of neutrality and public choice considerations weigh strongly in favor of adopting OSS when that’s feasible.”
20-May-2003 Sonia Arrison Is the Penguin Contaminated? “we can expect defiance, not cooperation, on serious issues like intellectual property from the open-source community”
6-Oct-2003 Megan McArdle Why Open Source May Be Doomed “the object of this lawsuit is not to stop Linux from using the code; it’s to stop Linux from eating SCO Unix’s lunch. And it seems to me that it’s very likely to succeed.”

Now, just because TCS is biased against Open Source, it doesn’t follow that it told the authors of those articles what to write. (Megan McArdle specifically denies this.) More likely the editor selects those that are favourable to the interests of the companies paying the bills. Henry Farrell explains further.

Oh, and while the articles at TCS might be biased against Open Source, guess what operating system TCS runs on? Yes, that’s right, Linux. Apparently, they were running Windows, but switched.

Update: Julian Sanchez writes:

I actually was motivated to write that piece for them precisely because, after disagreeing pretty strongly with a few articles there, I did a search for OS & saw a (then smaller) list of purely negative pieces. It was pretty clear what was going on, and I was partly just curious to see whether they’d say “sorry, not in line with our agenda” or whether they’d actually run it.

They were happy to run his piece, but also ran a reply from James DeLong in the same issue for “balance”. Whenever they ran an anti-OSS piece they did not balance it with an article presenting the other side of the question.

markus has the best summary of all the blogspace discussion of TCS.


  1. #1 Arnold Kling
    November 20, 2003

    I was skeptical about Java, also (and rightly so). I write what I think. You may not agree with it. My early essays are at See especially no’s. 4-7, 25, 34, and 50.

    I have written close to 100 essays for TCS, and only one of those was about open source. I think that the whole debate over open source vs. Windows is old hat, because I don’t think the desktop is where it’s happening any more.

  2. #2 Tim Lambert
    November 20, 2003

    I accept that your opinion was not paid for. The ones that struck me as shill pieces when I first read them (ie before I knew about the DCI connection) were the ones by Henderson and Arrison — they did not seem to be arguing honestly.

    Confessore’s piece did not convince me of TCS bias on OSS — it explained to me the reason for that bias, which had been obvious for a long time.

    I don’t agree with your comments on open source in your essays. For example five years ago you wrote:

    “I would not be surprised to see the paradigm of the Web server as the province of Unix geeks overthrown in the next five years. I would be more surprised if that paradigm were to persist. And when ordinary civilians run web servers, my prediction is that those servers will be proprietary.”

    Your essay is served up by Apache running on Linux.

  3. #3 raj
    November 20, 2003

    The issue is not whether Kling wrote an article to conform to TCS’s clients’ interests. The issue is whether TCS selected articles for publication substantially because they conform to the clients’ interests–with an occasional article to make their readership believe that they were really independent. Or whether they selected authors whom they believed would write articles that would likely conform to their clients’ interests. All of which without telling the readers, of course.

  4. #4 Neil Lewis
    November 20, 2003

    If Tech Central Station actually thought about free (as in Free Markets) software, they’d certainly have a more balanced view. Do they really think allowing a convicted monopolist to smear its competitors is good for the IT industry? What is curious is that the TCS website runs Apache on RedHat Linux. Open Source Software, it’s terrible.

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