Microsoft’s Flip Flop

I’ve been intrigued by the conflagration raging in Washington state over Microsoft’s recent decision not to back a gay rights bill in the state’s senate. Today’s paper said Bill Gates was back-peddling on the stand, following a firestorm of criticism from gay rights activists both inside and outside the company. At issue is not just the company’s position on the bill — which prohibits discrimination against gays in employment, housing, and other areas — but the company’s hiring of Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition, as a consultant (to the tune of $20,000 a month). Critics see a link between the two, especially as a local evangelical minister had threatened a boycott of Microsoft products if the company endorsed the bill.

Is this what it’s come to? Microsoft has had no problem ignoring pressure from the Justice Department, the EU, and various consumer groups, but caves to the Christian right over gay rights? That’s a far cry from the late ’90s when I worked for one of the company’s Web sites. In the years leading up to the Justice Department’s anti-trust suit, I was always shocked at how parochial the company was, seemingly oblivious to how it was being perceived outside the Pacific Northwest.

What has changed? Is Microsoft now really so exquisitely sensitive to public opinion that it fears arousing the wrath of the religious right even more than it’s concerned about alienating its own employees? Or is it worried about the bigger issue: political retribution in that other Washington?