Letters purportedly written by at least two dead people landed on the desk of Utah Atty. Gen. Mark Shurtleff earlier this year, imploring him to go easy on Microsoft Corp. for its conduct as a monopoly.
The pleas, along with about 400 others from Utah citizens, are part of a carefully orchestrated nationwide campaign to create the impression of a surging grass-roots movement. But it may be backfiring.
The targets of the campaign, attorneys general of some of the 18 states that have joined the Justice Department in suing Microsoft, have figured out the campaign's origins, and they're fuming.
The campaign, orchestrated by a group partly funded by Microsoft, goes to great lengths so that the letters appear to be spontaneous expressions from ordinary citizens. Letters sent in the last month are printed on personalized stationery using different wording, color and typefaces--details that distinguish those efforts from common lobbying tactics that go on in politics every day. Experts said there's little precedent for such an effort supported by a company defending itself against government accusations of illegal behavior.
"I've never heard of it before," said UC Berkeley business professor David Vogel. "If any firm should be at the cutting edge of using technology for lobbying, it should be Microsoft."
Regulators became suspicious of the ruse after noticing that the same sentences appear in the letters and that some return addresses appear invalid.
"It's an obvious corporate attempt to manipulate citizen input," said Rick Cantrell, community relations director for the Utah attorney general.
"You can just tell these were engineered. When there's a real groundswell, people walk in, they fax, they call. We get handwritten letters."
Microsoft officials, whose aggressive lobbying tactics in the antitrust battle have raised eyebrows in the past, said they simply are responding to the lobbying efforts of competitors.
"There's been a political campaign waged against Microsoft for a number of years by well-funded special interest companies like AOL, Oracle, Sun Microsystems and their trade associations," Microsoft spokesman Vivek Varma said. "It's not surprising that companies and organizations that support Microsoft are mobilizing to counter that lobby."
Indeed, Microsoft's competitors have helped craft some of the legal strategy against the company, and they actively lobby against the Redmond, Wash., software firm. Oracle, for one, was criticized for hiring a private investigator that combed through a pro-Microsoft group's trash. But those companies say they haven't tried to drum up activism by the public in the Microsoft antitrust battle.
Microsoft referred questions about the new campaign to the group running it, Americans for Technology Leadership, which gets some money from Microsoft but won't say how much. ATL was founded in 1999 as a spinoff of the Assn. for Competitive Technology, another pro-Microsoft group.
People working for ATL call residents and at first say they are conducting a poll about the Microsoft case. People who express support for Microsoft are sent letters to sign, along with handstamped, pre-addressed envelopes to their state attorney general, to President Bush and to their members of Congress.
Asked about the relationship between the telephone calls to citizens and the subsequent letters, ATL Executive Director Jim Prendergast initially said those who agreed the prosecution was misguided merely were given suggestions about what to use in drafting their own letters.
"We gave them a few bullet points, but that's about the extent of it," he said.
Asked why some phrases were identical, Prendergast then conceded the letters were written by his operation. "We'd write the letter and then send it to them," he said. "That's fairly common practice."
Engineers of grass-roots campaigns prize the most individualistic expression, knowing pre-printed missives have far less effect.
"The more orchestrated it gets, the less influence it has," said Stanford University business professor David Baron, who has written on political activism by corporations. "Handwritten letters that are written by human beings can make a difference."
It's not clear how many states are targeted in the campaign, or how much is being spent to generate the letters.
Grass-roots specialists typically charge $25 to $75 for each letter from ordinary citizens and much more for letters from public officials or celebrities, said Nancy Clack of Precision Communications, a political communications company. Because each Microsoft letter is different, the cost of the ATL campaign probably is on the high end of the scale. If the group is aiming for 100 letters in each of the 18 states, the tab easily could exceed $100,000.
The letter-writing exercise is part of a larger plan to sway Congress and encourage prosecutors to pursue a settlement in advance of a court hearing on how the company should be punished for illegally maintaining its monopoly on computer operating systems.
The maker of Windows and other software also has stepped up campaign donations, becoming the fifth-largest soft-money donor to the national Republican and Democratic parties in 1999-2000, and it has hired a slew of well-connected lobbying firms.
To assist it in the grass-roots campaign, Microsoft turned to two of the nation's top political advocacy groups: Boston-based Dewey Square Group, co-founded by Al Gore campaigner Michael Whouley, and Phoenix-based DCI/New Media, led by Republican strategist Tom Synhorst.
One crop of letters began rolling into state offices this spring.
Quietly distributed by another Microsoft-supported group, Citizens Against Government Waste, those letters were identical except for the signature.
Minnesota Atty. Gen. Mike Hatch said he got about 300 of those. "It's sleazy," he said. "This is not a company that appears to be bothered by ethical boundaries."
State officials said they won't be swayed by the effort, and Hatch responded with his own mailings to the senders, explaining his position.
Some recipients wrote back by hand, apologizing for passing along the Microsoft-inspired letters. "I sure was misled," one wrote.
Utah officials found that two prefab letters from Citizens Against Government Waste bore the typed names of dead people. Those names had been crossed out by family members who signed for them. And another letter came from "Tuscon, Utah," a city that doesn't exist.
In recent weeks, the strategy was refined to engineer more-individualized letters to state officials and the Bush administration.
Iowa Atty. Gen. Tom Miller's office has received more than 50 anti-lawsuit letters in the last month from state residents.
No two letters are identical, but the giveaway lies in the phrasing.
Four Iowa letters include this sentence: "Strong competition and innovation have been the twin hallmarks of the technology industry."
Three others use exactly these words: "If the future is going to be as successful as the recent past, the technology sector must remain free from excess regulation."
Some residents who fielded ATL's calls believed the states themselves were soliciting their views, according to the attorneys general of Minnesota, Illinois and Utah.
When a caller started asking Minnesotan Nancy Brown questions about Microsoft, she thought she was going to get help figuring out what was wrong with her computer.
Instead, the caller wanted to know whether she agreed that federal and state antitrust prosecutors had better things to do than attack the leader of the high-tech economy.
"They were trying to get me to say the government had no business interfering with Microsoft," Brown said. "I said I didn't agree with that."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Different Letters, Same Wording
Portions of three separate letters supporting Microsoft, sent by different citizens: