Microsoft case prompts e-mail deletion probe

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Microsoft case prompts e-mail deletion probe

Microsoft is digging deeper into its stores of electronic correspondence after a US judge instructed the company to provide more information about a four-year-old e-mail from a company vice president that told employees to delete e-mail after 30 days.

Microsoft will comply with the new instructions, which were issued last week in a patent infringement and antitrust case brought by Burst.com. The company has acknowledged that the 30-day limit mentioned in the e-mail message is shorter than Microsoft's official document retention policy, but denied that the order was related to legal cases facing the company at the time, said Microsoft spokesman Jim Desler.

The company is still reviewing a transcript of the instructions regarding the e-mail message. Microsoft is likely to provide the court with more e-mail messages that put in context the reminder that came from James Allchin, group vice president of Microsoft’s Platforms Group, to "destroy all business-related" e-mail, Desler said.

Burst.com filed its suit against Microsoft in June 2002, alleging that Microsoft stole patented technology and trade secrets concerning internet-based video-on-demand for its Windows Media Player product.

Microsoft learned all about Burst.com's technology in two years of meetings and discussions, and signed a nondisclosure agreement with Burst before those meetings, Burst.com said.

The Allchin e-mail surfaced after Burst.com filed repeated motions for Microsoft to turn over e-mail messages and backup tapes containing e-mail.

"[Burst] is trying to make the allegation that Microsoft was doing something in terms of document retention - this came up in a broader discussion of the existence of e-mails or notes that we have looked thoroughly for, but ... don't know if they exist," Desler said.

So far, Microsoft has turned over more than 500,000 pages from 60 employee files in the case, Desler said.

Allchin's comments in the e-mail were part of a discussion or "thread" concerning document retention that Allchin did not start. However, the 30-day limit on keeping old e-mail is a "stricter version" of the company's policy, Desler said.

Desler could not say how long Microsoft employees are allowed to hold onto e-mail messages, but said it was longer than 30 days.

Still, Microsoft has information that will show that Allchin's comments were "consistent with [Microsoft's] policy to meet all its legal obligations and provide for efficient management of its corporate e-mail," he said. 

Burst.com's allegations regarding Microsoft's e-mail retention policies are without merit and are designed to distract attention from the patent infringement issues, which show that Microsoft used its "own work and innovation" with the Windows Media Player, Desler said.

Attorneys for Burst.com did not respond to requests for comment.

The issue of document retention is a particularly volatile one, especially in the wake of a jury's conviction of Frank Quattrone, the head of the Technology Group at Credit Suisse First Boston. He was found guilty of obstructing a grand jury investigation into the issuance of shares in an initial public offering after he sent an e-mail reminding colleagues about Credit Suisse First Boston's document retention policy shortly after learning of a federal probe into the IPO allocation issue.

Desler dismissed any similarities between Burst.com's allegations about Microsoft and the case against Quattrone and CSFB.

"One thing is clear: Microsoft has been completely forthcoming in providing any and all evidence requested of it," he said.

Paul Roberts writes for IDG News Service


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