Since the late 1990s the European Commission (EC) has been concerned with trying to prevent Microsoft from abusing its dominant position. As described previously on this site, in the latest instalment last week Microsoft was fined for accidentally failing to adhere to an earlier commitment automatically to allow Windows users a choice of web browser.
This is the first case of fines being imposed for failure to comply with commitments required by the EC. In part because of Microsoft’s compliance, the fine imposed was well below the maximum level it could have been. However, it still means that Microsoft has now in total contributed enough to the EC’s coffers to cover the competition department’s budget for over 20 years.
Commitments appear to be increasingly the EC’s preferred solution for resolving competition disputes, especially in the rapidly changing IT sector (see for example Google and e-books). In contrast to a lengthy litigation process, in theory such commitments can quickly fix the problem and increase competition. The EC hopes that the fine imposed on Microsoft will send clear signals to firms that agreed upon commitments must be adhered to. However, this case also highlights that behavioural commitments require close monitoring by the competition authorities. As one industry consultant argues:
While it’s highly likely that it was a technical mistake that broke the browser choice facility the fact that it remained broken for 14 months raises significant questions about Microsoft’s ability and willingness to comply with the voluntary agreement with the EU.
At the same time the situation also raises concerns over the EU’s ability to actually monitor the outcomes of antitrust agreements.
Microsoft offers web browser choice to IE users BBC News (19/02/10)
Microsoft faces hefty EU fine The Guardian (06/03/13)
Microsoft fined €561m for ‘browser choice’ error The Guardian, Charles Arthur (06/03/13)
- Why is it essential that competition disputes in the IT sector are quickly resolved?
- What are the problems with monitoring company behaviour in this sector?
- What are the pros and cons of agreeing commitments rather than litigation for competition law infringements?
- How might Microsoft respond to this latest fine from the EC?
In 2009, the European Commission investigated Microsoft’s practice of bundling its own browser, Internet Explorer, with new copies of Windows. It found that this was an abuse of market power and created an unfair barrier to entry of other browsers, such as Firefox.
An agreement was reached that Microsoft would include a ‘choice screen’ in which users in the EU would be given a full list of alternative browsers and asked which they would like to install. On making their selection, a link would take them to the browser site to download the installation program. This screen would be available until 2014. Between March 2010, when the choice screen was first provided and November of the same year, 84 million browsers were downloaded through it.
In May 2011, however, the screen was no longer present on new Windows 7 purchases. The Commission took some time to realise this: indeed it was Microsoft’s rivals that pointed it out. The screen reappeared some 13 months later, after some 15m copies of Windows software had been sold.
For this lapse, the Commission has just fined Microsoft €561m. Commission Vice President in charge of competition policy, Joaquín Almunia, said:
In 2009, we closed our investigation about a suspected abuse of dominant position by Microsoft due to the tying of Internet Explorer to Windows by accepting commitments offered by the company. Legally binding commitments reached in antitrust decisions play a very important role in our enforcement policy because they allow for rapid solutions to competition problems. Of course, such decisions require strict compliance. A failure to comply is a very serious infringement that must be sanctioned accordingly.
This may seem unduly harsh, given that Internet Explorer’s share of the browser market has fallen dramatically. In 2009, it had around 50% of the European market, with its main rival at the time, Mozilla’s Firefox, having just under 40%. By 2013, Internet Explorer’s share has fallen to around 24% and Firefox’s to around 29%. Google’s Chrome, which was just starting up in 2009, has seen its share of the European market rise to around 35% and is now the market leader. Partly this is due to the rise in tablets and smartphones, a large proportion of which use Google’s Android operating system and the Chrome browser.
Not surprisingly, the European Commission is investigating Google to see whether it is abusing a dominant position. Is Google’s case, it’s not just about its share of the browser market, it’s more about its share of the search market, which in the EU is around 90% (compared with around 65% in the USA). As The Economist article below states:
The Commissioner believes that Google may be favouring its own specialised services (eg, for flights or hotels) at rivals’ expense; that its deals with publishers may unfairly exclude competitors; and that it prevents advertisers from taking their data elsewhere.
Joaquín Almunia asked Google to respond to these concerns by January 31. Google delivered its suggestions on the deadline, but we await to hear precisely what it said and how the Commission will respond. It is understood that Google’s proposal is for clearly labelling its own products on its search engine.
Microsoft Fined $732 Million By EU Over Browser eWeek, Michelle Maisto (6/3/13)
Microsoft faces hefty EU fine The Guardian (6/3/13)
Sin of omission The Economist (9/3/13)
Microsoft fined by European Commission over web browser BBC News (6/3/13)
EU commissioner Joaquin Almunia announces Microsoft fine BBC News (6/3/13)
Microsoft’s European Fine Comes in an Era of Browser Diversity Forbes, J.P. Gownder (6/3/13)
Life after Firefox: Can Mozilla regain its mojo? BBC News, Dave Lee (11/4/12)
Google responds to European commission’s antitrust chief The Guardian, Charles Arthur (31/1/13)
Google May Clinch EU Settlement After ‘Summer,’ Almunia Says Bloomberg Businessweek, Stephanie Bodoni and Aoife White (22/2/13)
European Commission Press Release
Antitrust: Commission fines Microsoft for non-compliance with browser choice commitments Europa (6/3/13)
- Why did Microsoft’s share of the browser market continue to decline between May 2011 and June 2012?
- Why would it matter if Microsoft had market power in the browser market, given that it’s free for anyone to download a browser?
- In what ways might Google be abusing a dominant position in the market?
- Can Mozilla regain its mojo?
- According to the second Guardian article, the Microsoft-backed lobby group Icomp said “To be seen as a success, any settlement must … include specific measures to restore competition and allow other parties to compete effectively on a level playing field with Google in the key markets of search and search advertising.” Give examples of such measures and assess how successful they might be.
- Would “clearly labelling its own products on its search engine” be enough to ensure adequate competition?