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Opinion Why is Elon Musk suing Open AI and Sam Altman? In a word: Microsoft.

Potential ramifications extend far beyond the courtroom In a striking turn of events, Elon Musk, Tesla’s TSLA, -7.16% CEO, has initiated legal action against OpenAI and its leadership, alleging that the organization he helped found has moved from its original altruistic mission toward a profit-driven approach, particularly after partnering with Microsoft MSFT, -0.14%.

The lawsuit accentuates Musk’s deep-seated concerns that OpenAI has deviated from its foundational manifesto of developing artificial general intelligence (AGI) for the betterment of humanity, choosing instead to prioritize financial gains. But is that really so, or is there something else at hand? 

Musk was deeply involved with OpenAI since its inception in 2015, as his concerns about AI’s potential risks and the vision to advance AI in a way that benefits humanity aligned with OpenAI’s original ethos as a non-profit organization.

In 2018, however, Musk became disillusioned with OpenAI because, in his view, it no longer operated as a nonprofit and was building technology that took sides in political and social debates. The recent OpenAI drama that culminated with a series of significant changes in OpenAI’s structure and ethos, as well as a what can only be seen as Microsoft’s power grab, seems to have sparked Musk’s discontent.

To understand his reasoning, it helps to remember that Microsoft is a company with a long history of litigation. Over the years, Microsoft has faced numerous high-profile legal battles related to its market practices.

Here are some prominent cases to illustrate the issue:

• In the United States v. Microsoft Corp. case, which began in 1998, the U.S. Department of Justice accused Microsoft of holding a monopolistic position in the PC operating-systems market and taking actions to crush threats to that monopoly. In April 2000, the case resulted in a verdict that Microsoft had engaged in monopolization and attempted monopolization in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. 

• In Europe, Microsoft has faced significant fines for abusing its dominant market position. In 2004, the European Commission fined Microsoft 497.2 million euros, the largest sum it had ever imposed on a single company at the time​​. In 2008, Microsoft was fined an additional 899 million euros for failing to comply with the 2004 antitrust order.

• In 2013, the European Commission levied a 561 million euro fine against Microsoft for failing to comply with a 2009 settlement agreement to offer Windows users a choice of internet browsers instead of defaulting to Internet Explorer. 

In light of these past litigations, it’s much easier to understand why OpenAI’s CEO Sam Altman’s brief departure from the company and subsequent return late last year — which culminated in a significant shift in the organization’s governance and its relationship with Microsoft — was the straw that likely broke Musk’s back.