Filibusted!

Everyone waiting for the outcome of the Hewlett-Packard shareholders’ vote on its plan to merge with Compaq should pull up a chair. A nice, big, comfortable chair.

It was to be expected that HP chief executive Carly Fiorina would attempt to pre-empt the vote results by speculating on a

“”slim but significant”” margin of victory. It was also a foregone conclusion that HP director Walter Hewlett would then try to stonewall her plans by accusing the company of buying votes. The fact that a United States judge is allowing the suit to proceed just goes to show how well the techniques of politics can be applied to the business sector. Let’s recognize this tactic, and the many other maneuverings like it, for what they are: lawsuits as high-tech filibusters.

Of course Canadians, who have learned about the perils of process through many useless Royal Commissions, are all too familiar with filibusters. I made the connection recently as I was reading Desmond Morton’s compelling (though flawed) A Short History of Canada, which takes you from pre-Confederation to the Canadian Alliance in just under 400 pages. In one instance, the late Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier was the victim: “”Exasperated by a Tory filibuster on the Reciprocity Agreement, Laurier called an election on Sept. 21, 1911,”” Morton writes. Though this was more than half a century before people spoke of moving at “”Internet speed,”” Laurier’s impatience apparently cost him votes: he lost.

Fiorina has already had her election, but Walter Hewlett’s lawsuit could leave the results in limbo. By definition, a filibuster is simply someone who holds up a passage of legislation by making a long-winded speech. But we all know there is more than one way to stall for time. Let’s take a brief look at some of the other notable filibusters in high-tech history:

Microsoft: As always, it’s the market leader. The software firm’s well-paid legal team have used every trick in the book to protract the appellate process in its antitrust trial. Of course, it’s easy to work a system that has so many holes. Even once the court ordered a breakup of the company, Microsoft had more than 60 days to file its notice of appeal, potentially pushing back the time the U.S. Supreme Court could hear the case. Justice is apparently slow as well as blind.

The U.S. Senate: A few years ago there was a big push on to pass laws that would curb frivolous lawsuits stemming from the Year 2000 problem. Republicans were stymied, however, by Democratic filibusters who kept the McCain bill languishing in the Senate for weeks (That’s still better than the Canadian Senate, of course. At least they show up for work).

Canada’s health-care sector: The nemesis of the federal government’s attempt to pass privacy legislation. Health-care organizations managed to get a year’s extension once the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act was passed. But just talk to any of the people who helped draft the former Bill C-6 and they’ll tell you (through gritted teeth) how frustrating the lobbying was.

Sometimes there are good reasons for a filibuster. A number of U.S. bills covering Internet taxation, online gambling and spam have been repeatedly held up, and perhaps rightly so. Governments around the world have yet to prove they are capable of effectively handling these issues in the offline world, let alone the online one.

In this case, we’re not dealing with a government but a company. Nevertheless, its impact on global businesses and on thousands of employees makes the long-term consequences of the proposed merger as important as many other regulatory matters. There may be strong evidence to support Hewlett’s suit, but he has established a track record over the last six months of putting up blockades to further his own agenda. This industry needs to move on, and to deal with whatever the future holds. These waiting games make losers of us all.

sschick@itbusiness.ca

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