Plus Ça Change …

Well, actually, it’s not the same thing — now the Justice Department is being run by attorneys who have a very different agenda, and Microsoft has started playing the political game very well: Microsoft Finds Legal Defender in Justice Dept.

In the most striking recent example of the policy shift, the top antitrust official at the Justice Department last month urged state prosecutors to reject a confidential antitrust complaint filed by Google that is tied to a consent decree that monitors Microsoft’s behavior. […]

The official, Thomas O. Barnett, an assistant attorney general, had until 2004 been a top antitrust partner at the law firm that has represented Microsoft in several antitrust disputes. At the firm, Justice Department officials said, he never worked on Microsoft matters. Still, for more than a year after arriving at the department, he removed himself from the case because of conflict of interest issues. Ethics lawyers ultimately cleared his involvement.

Mr. Barnett’s memo dismissing Google’s claims, sent to state attorneys general around the nation, alarmed many of them, they and other lawyers from five states said. Some state officials said they believed that Google’s complaint had merit. They also said that they could not recall receiving a request by any head of the Justice Department’s antitrust division to drop any inquiry.

[…] The complaint, which contends that Google’s desktop search tool is slowed down by Microsoft’s competing program, has not been made public by Google or the judge overseeing the Microsoft consent decree, Colleen Kollar-Kotelly of the Federal District Court in Washington. It is expected to be discussed at a hearing on the decree in front of Judge Kollar-Kotelly this month.

[…] Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut attorney general, declined to talk about the substance of the complaint, or which company made it. But he said the memo from Mr. Barnett surprised him.

“Eyebrows were raised by this letter in our group, as much by the substance and tone as by the past relationship the author had had with Microsoft,” said Mr. Blumenthal, one of the few state prosecutors who has been involved in the case since its outset.

“In concept, if not directly word for word, it is the Microsoft-Netscape situation,” Mr. Blumenthal said. “The question is whether we’re seeing déjà vu all over again.”