Lesson in freedom

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 April, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 April, 2000, 12:00am

When a $300 billion software company with unprecedented global dominance is humbled in the US courts, every computer user in the world stands to profit from the ruling, though the benefits will not be immediate.

Bill Gates, Microsoft's combative owner, will appeal against the decision and the case could well drag on for years.

But the point has been made.

No monopoly in the US is so powerful that it can flout the law. The free market must mean what it says and not even the world's richest man should be able to tilt the playing field to his advantage.

Unfortunately, things are different in Hong Kong. Anti-competitive practices touch many aspects of life, from money spent on groceries to the interest paid to investors by banks. Hong Kong's version of a free market has many limitations that the Government tackles only by piecemeal liberalisation. Opening up the telecommunications industry showed how dramatically the market can be reformed. Gradually, banks are being reined in.

The big six mobile phone operators were stopped from imposing a simultaneous fee rise, but there is nothing to prevent them taking subtle cues from one another to raise charges consecutively. Oil companies have been doing just that to make drivers pay more for fuel than anywhere else in the world.

Free trade allows us to buy the best for the cheapest price from all over the world, but local retail prices are often not the lowest because of imperfect competition.

Anti-trust laws and competition laws are common in many major economies. The tycoons who dominate SAR business life have never faced the restrictions that now confront Bill Gates, and the prospect of them ever doing so is remote.

But the US federal court's ruling must give extra weight to a local private member's bill that seeks to stop bid-rigging, monopoly pricing, and all other practices that put local consumers at a disadvantage. The bill has next to no chance of succeeding under the split-vote system. But it will take more than that to make the subject go away.