Not the boss of me

Enough, please, of Microsoft. There will of course be no end of Microsoft, not for a while; as Bill sardonically put it before he lost his mind and declared that getting on the stand and recounting the history of computing would've endeared him to Judge Jackson, "Today is the first day of the rest of this trial." Lord, we need a breather.

We live in a world where William H. Gates III is "Bill"—not just the Earth-world where he's the media's shorthand symbol for all that is wealthy and geekish in the realm of high tech, but in Seattle, where for many folk he's the actual head of their company. If you're a Microsoftie, Bill has a real presence in your life: Bill is your boss.

And because he is your boss (or ex-boss or the boss of a friend), you are likely to talk about him. Talking about the boss has been a human trait since Thog's wheel-inventing team decided he was getting an unfair share of the mammoth carcass. It's one of the signal pleasures of holding a job (ask any freelancer) and a way of making palatable an activity that consumes 40-80 hours of your life each week.

Employee gossip is often the Greek chorus in a tragic workplace—when things are going to hell, survival instinct and human kindness dictate that employees warn one another to duck and cover. (Bosses don't need warning, since they are among the substances that float to the top after any shipwreck; in any case, they're usually better braced for impact.) An employee that's talking is an employee that's still trying to cope with what's happening, rather than going to ground to update her resume. And I know from my mail that it's often the employees who care most about a company (Amazon in the hoooouuuuuse!) who try to get word of trouble to concerned folk outside who might be able to have an impact where the folks down in the trenches have not. Where there's loose lips, there's hope.

So be afraid of last week's Florida court ruling in which Judge Eleanor Schockett ruled that people speaking anonymously online have no protection if someone files a subpoena to unmask them. In this case, the plaintiff wants to sue one or more persons who allegedly said defamatory things about himself and his company on Yahoo. Other such cases, which we have covered in this space previously, have involved the Church of Scientology and a number of businesses gunning for their own chatty (whistle-blowing) employees. In most, the plaintiff has merely to threaten an expensive lawsuit to quash the speech—censorship by checkbook. In other words, the employee gets fired, even if what s/he speaks is truth.

We've got a live one here; the ACLU is watching this case closely, and there's potential for real precedent as the courts grapple yet again with the Net's First Amendment status. I worry about this ruling not only because this lower court has a damned provincial idea of America's tradition of anonymous free speech, but because this sort of ruling can put a chill on other important things, like my mailbox.

I get a good deal of e-mail from people who prefer to remain anonymous. By law, their identities are safe with me; as a reporter I am constitutionally protected from being forced to reveal my sources. (And going to jail for refusing to reveal them, I understand, is a nice way to get short-listed for a Pulitzer. Bring it on!) Again, these people generally care very much about their jobs and their companies; they're venting, but they're doing so to air important points they're not able to make safely in-house.

These are scary times for high-tech workers: Microsoft, Salon (sorry about that, guys), APBnews (all 140 staff laid off in one day), Corel (21 percent of the workforce cut), and the list goes on. The crazy days are over; dumbshit business practices are more likely to make you fodder for the efailures mailing list than fodder for the cover of Forbes. It's about time, but since we're still learning what makes a good dot-com tick, we need to hear what's going on behind the scenes.

Now is the time when we separate the functional businesses from the frivolous ones, for the good of the industry and the good of the economy. They say that lawsuits are the last refuge of a company incapable of succeeding on its own merits, something Bill must ponder as he looks south to Silicon Valley and the billionaires celebrating Microsoft's travails; using the courts to stymie discussion would be a pitiful indicator if it wasn't so dangerous for us all.

Visit our special coverage page chronicling the Microsoft split.

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