American Express Co. and Visa U.S.A., on opposite sides of a federal antitrust battle, are pleading their respective cases on the World Wide Web.
Taking advantage of the directness of the Internet-where it need not deal with news media filters or other intermediaries-American Express said it is posting on its Web site "up-to-the-minute news" and "regular updates" about the federal government's challenge to MasterCard and Visa membership and operating policies.
American Express, which is seen as having the most to gain from a government victory that would let it co-market cards with banks, proclaimed its Web news intentions Oct. 7, the day the Justice Department suit was filed.
The next day, Visa struck back in kind, posting at www.visa.com excerpts from newspaper articles in which the lawsuit was criticized.
The volleys are part of aggressive public relations campaigns. Microsoft Corp., which is locked in an antitrust battle against the same government agency, similarly offers running commentary and updates from its perspective at www.microsoft.com.
Pages viewable at American Express' www.americanexpress.com mimic the Microsoft site by using a gavel to lend an air of courtroom gravity. The gavel sits above a photo of Harvey Golub, American Express chairman and chief executive officer. The site's rapidly changing content is evocative of CNN-like coverage of an issue Amex has repeatedly tried to push into the media spotlight.
American Express spokeswoman Gail Wasserman said the site is meant to help manage a deluge of reporters' calls. If the Justice Department had not sued, the site would not have been launched. "We didn't know whether we would be able to use it," she said.
Both sides were prepared: In the months before the lawsuit, each gathered data favorable to its case to load on the Web as soon as the government acted.
Visa U.S.A. also released a video, downloadable from its site, in which Michael Beindorff, executive vice president of marketing, says, "No business should be forced to offer its competitors' products. ... We believe the lawsuit will fail in a court of law."
One antitrust lawyer who has been following this case said the two sides are simply trying to generate public sympathy.
"It's unfortunate-and probably a reality-that Justice could be swayed by this," said the lawyer, who did not want to be named. He said the messages are meant to influence perceptions of the lawsuit and this can "contribute to how the judiciary reacts to things."
Visa appears mindful of the risk of public backlash. Microsoft has been characterized as arrogant in its public responses to the government's accusations.
Visa spokesman Kelly Presta said, "With all due respect to the Justice Department, our Web site really focuses on Visa's view of this situation." Visa tries to rebut the government by offering evidence of a robustly competitive card industry.
MasterCard International has been lower-key. Its Web site posting has been just the press release the company put out when the lawsuit was filed.
Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co.-issuer of the Discover card and a supporter of the government's case-makes no mention of the lawsuit on its site.
With legal proceedings expected to drag on for years, the Internet postings may become fairly static.
American Express' site offers a link to the Justice Department's Web site, where the 33-page complaint plus formal remarks by Attorney General Janet Reno and Joel I. Klein, assistant attorney general of the antitrust division, are posted.
American Express also offers a chronology of events leading up to the lawsuit filing-from its perspective, of course, along with news articles critical of Visa and MasterCard and statements from Mr. Golub.
Mr. Presta said the initial hoopla has "died down. Reporters have said that this is not a topic of interest."