The Australian Democrats have lashed out at John Howard's strong endorsement yesterday of Microsoft and its founder and chairman Bill Gates.
Howard and Gates were sharing a stage in Sydney to announce increased funding for the community computing project, Unlimited Potential.
Gates announced that Microsoft has upped its philanthropic investment in Australia by $1 million a year for the next five years, spending $40 million on the Unlimited Potential program. Speaking at the announcement, Howard hailed the Microsoft boss as the world's "most significant social coalitionist".
"Bill Gates is an exemplar to the capitalists of the world and the successful businessmen and women of the world, that having received the fruits of a free market competitive system, that we all have an obligation to return some of that benefit to the less fortunate in the world and the less fortunate within our own communities," said Howard.
While Howard thanked Microsoft and its founder for the donation, Australian Democrats' spokesperson on IT, Senator Brian Greig, poured cold water on the significance of the donation, and the motives behind it.
"Microsoft sucks $1 billion out of Australia each year just in licensing fees," said Greig. "To return $40 million in five years is a drop in the bucket."
Grieg warned that government needed to keep perspective on the motives behind corporate philanthropy, saying that the PM's strong endorsement of Gates and his company -- which has been involved in lengthy anti-trust suits in the both the US and Europe -- was "inappropriate".
"I suspect it's more to do with the Prime Minister's lack of understanding of IT issues," he said.
"Bill Gates' philanthropy is always based in self interest. What this is mostly about is marketing and PR," said Greig.
Gates' job was to increase returns to his shareholders, and the donation of software through programs such as Unlimited Potential would help achieve this by getting organisations to lock themselves in to a Microsoft software environment. "That means money going back to Bill Gates," said Greig.
It wasn't a coincidence that Gates' visit coincided with a "slow but upward trend" among organisations including the Tax Office and Centrelink to migrate from Microsoft software to Open Source solutions, said the Democrats spokesperson.
Microsoft's Unlimited Potential program is delivered in partnership with five community organisations -- The Smith Family, Inspire Foundation, WorkVentures, Australian Seniors Computer Clubs Association and Yarnteen.
The program will provide community based access and training on computers and the internet. Its community technology learning centres will attempt to stave off the "very significant digital divide" between those with access to technology, and those without, said Gates. "If we didn't achieve it, our technology would become divisive," he said.
Howard's endorsement of the corporate citizenship of Microsoft and its chairman comes a month after the software giant lodged an appeal against the $600 million fine imposed by the European Commission for monopolistic behaviour.
In May, the US Department of Justice revealed that Gates agreed to pay a fine of US$800,000 for allegedly failing to disclose an investment in a Seattle area pharmaceutical company.