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Clueless in Seattle 

WTO-meeting fiasco signals growing high-tech distrust

Something's happening here. With any luck, the honeymoon is waning for U.S. technology companies that think they can lead the world around with a leash. Bill Gates, in particular, has mammoth egg on his face after playing host to -- if that's what you call his deafening silence once the tear gas started flying -- the World Trade Organization meeting in his adopted pet town, Seattle, last week.

I'd feel bad for the Microsoft founder -- co-chairman of the WTO host committee -- if his thirst for power weren't so dangerous. And, in this case, his naivet is matched only by that of President Clinton and other WTO cheerleaders who thought this conference might actually accomplish their open-border/big-business/don't-worry/be-happy goals.

Ponder Gates' embarrassing wish-list op-ed he penned for the Nov. 29 New York Times just before the Seattle fiasco: "The world we live in is changing. Borders and barriers are coming down: actions in one corner of the world will affect people around the globe."

He is right about that: Relaxing international trade policies will affect people worldwide -- foreign sweatshop workers making high-tech parts; American workers losing lucrative tech jobs to imported workers; loss of U.S. manufacturing industry; endangerment of an already-fragile world environment; force-fed, genetically modified food; tepid responses to human-rights violations in countries such as China.

Gates' New World Order would allow the Internet to take over retail revenue by exempting it indefinitely from taxation. "The high-technology industry supports a 'tariff-free zone' for economic transactions over the Internet," he writes without regard to communities suddenly strapped for revenue. And it's not good enough that the U.S. promise not to tax e-commerce. "We support consistent international rules for the electronic marketplace to give companies the confidence to invest and consumers the benefit of greater choice."

He also wants an international treaty to protect intellectual property rights, which he calls "fundamental to the continued strength of American technology companies."

If it sounds too good to be true, well, it is. Gates might as well ask for world peace and a cure for hunger while he's at it. That's how simple-minded (and single-minded) this gift list is -- and why protesters of all stripes and political ideologies (from far right to far left) rallied against the WTO efforts at a quick trade formula to appease the Microsofts, Boeings and Amazons of the world (and Seattle).

When Gates lays out his wish list (he also wants an electric train set), he ignores whatever he doesn't want to see or consider. Like Third World human-rights persecutions, like slave-driven sweatshop workers, like communities that can be cash-strapped without revenues from retail sales, like shrinking natural resources.

I value high-tech innovation, and I know that progress can come at a price. However, we consumers must pay close attention to what the high-tech community, led and empowered by Gates himself, is reaping. In some ways, I love the idea of globalism and would love to see poorer countries share in all this obscene American wealth. But that world is not going to be created by one man with a selfish vision and a lot of pull. As last week indicated, it's going to take time and a lot of debate to get it right.

Whatever you thought of the protesters' tactics in Seattle, grab this opportunity to get and stay informed. Now that trade issues are on the public's radar screen, we all need to pay closer attention to what high-tech lobbyists are accomplishing in Washington. Be skeptical when tech cheerleaders tell you not to worry (red-flag words) -- that Microsoft & Co. need free rein to cheat and bully themselves to the top. Many of those cheerleaders (including journalists) either work or invest in technology. Sure, listen; just be skeptical.

The high-tech honeymoon must end. A workable blueprint for living in a world community requires more than a greedy edict from Seattle. These guys need to stop asking for special privileges and learn to be good neighbors.

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