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?
Increasing traffic on the roads is observable by everyone and government policy is focused on reducing the demand for road space, rather than increasing its supply. One method has been to improve public transport and make it a viable substitute for car travel. Private costs of motoring have increased, but if there is no viable alternative, people will continue to demand car travel. Investment in buses and trains has improved their quality: they are more frequent, more reliable, arguably more comfortable and supposed to be part of an integrated transport policy. Local bus services provide a crucial link for local communities, but it is these services that are now facing problems.
In your economics lectures, you may have looked at local bus services, when you considered monopolies, oligopolies and possibly contestable markets. Oligopolies, whilst closer to the monopoly end of the market spectrum can be very competitive, but are also open to collusion and anti-competitive practices. The local bus sector has been referred to the Competition Commission by the Office of Fair Trading through complaints of ‘predatory tactics’ by companies. It is argued that local bus services, by limiting competition, are causing prices to rise and the quality of service to fall. One key issue is that those companies established in the market are alleged to be acting aggressively towards smaller bus companies and thus reducing competition in the industry. A low number of bids for supported service contracts in many areas, local bus routes dominated by a few large companies and predatory actions by incumbent firms are all complaints that this industry is facing.
This investigation is especially important, given the amount of public money that goes into the bus industry: £1.2bn. Investigations found that in areas of limited competition, prices were 9p higher. A number of take-overs have contributed to this situation. Two-thirds of bus services are controlled by only five operators. This limits competition in the market and hence is argued to be against public interest. Yet, industry representatives still argue that the market is competitive. Read the following articles and answer the questions about this issue. Was the OFT right to to initiate this investigation?
Local buses to be re-regulated BBC News (27/9/09)
OFT refers UK bus market to Competition Commission Dow Jones Newswires, Kaveri Nihthyananthan (7/1/10)
Office of Fair Trading prompts probe into bus services Guardian (7/1/10)
Trasport groups fear OFT competition probe over buses Telegraph, Alistair Osborne (4/1/10)
Bus industry competition queried BBC News (20/8/09)
OFT refers bus industry on poor service and prices Times Online, Francesca Steele (7/1/10)
Inquiry into local bus market ‘may delay investment’ Scotsman, Hamish Rutherford (5/1/10)
- Why are local bus services argued to be (a) a monopoly; (b) an oligopoly?
- What are the main aspects of UK competition policy?
- What is a concentration ratio and how does this apply to the bus industry?
- What predatory tactics are being used in the local bus industry and how do they affect competition, prices and quality?
- Why may limited competition be against the public interest?
- Traffic congestion is a major problem. Explain the economic theory behind government intervention in this area. Think about the effects of taxes; building more roads; investment in substitutes. Which is likely to be the most effective method?
When we examine industries and markets in economics, one of the key things we look for is how competitive the market is. A question that we ask is, under what type of market structure is this firm operating? To answer this, we will need information on the number of competitors, the products, prices, advertising, profits, efficiency and how the firms are likely to behave in both the short and long run.
A lot of the time firms are independent: their behaviour doesn’t affect the actions of rivals. This is usually because each firm within the industry only has a relatively small market share. If one firm changes the price, or how much it spends on advertising/product development, this won’t have an impact on the market equilibrium.
However, it’s not as easy for an oligopolist, as interdependence is a key characteristic of this market structure. As such, it’s not surprising that firms have a decision to make: should they compete with the other firms and try to maximise our own profits, or should they collude and try to maximise industry profits? Whilst collusion is illegal in many countries, activities such as price fixing do go ahead and it can be difficult to prove, as the ACCC is finding with a petrol price-fixing case in Melbourne. In 49 of the 53 weeks studied, when one of the big petrol stations changed their price, the industry followed these movements exactly.
As competition in a market decreases, it could be a sign that an oligopoly is developing. A few firms are beginning to dominate the market and this could spell trouble for customers. Indeed, in the Australian banking sector, there are concerns that an oligopoly will develop if more competition is not introduced. The Deputy Chairman of the Australian Bankers’ Association said: “We’ve got four major banks that are repricing all their commercial and small business customers’ margins upwards”. Customers may therefore lose out with higher prices and less choice, while the dominant firms see their profits growing.
The market structure under which a firm is operating will have a major impact on its decisions and the outcomes in the market, as shown in the articles below.
ACCC on safe political ground in targeting the Mobil takeover The Australian Business, John Durie and Martin Collins (3/12/09)
Nippon Steel Chairman warns of Australian oligopolies Market Watch, Stephen Bell (10/11/09)
Government’s bank guarantee hurting BOQ: Libby Business Day (2/12/09)
Regulators to scrutinise BHP and Rio’s Australian joint venture Financial Times, William McNamara and Elizabeth Fry (7/12/09)
Crackdown on price fixing draws mixed reaction The Korea Herald (7/12/09)
- What are the main characteristics of an oligopoly?
- Illustrate a cartel that fixes prices and show how a member of this cartel must sell at that price and at a given quantity.
- Some factors make collusion more likely to occur and more likely to succeed. In the Australian banking sector, which factors do you think are allowing price fixing to occur?
- Is the example of petrol price fixing barometric price leadership or dominant firm price leadership? Explain both of these terms and use a diagram, where possible, to illustrate the effects.
- The articles suggest that oligopolies are bad for competition. Explain why this is the case.
- To what extent are oligopolies against the public interest? Use examples from the articles to back up your argument.
Walk down any street in the country, and you’re bound to see a Sky dish. With subscribers still increasing, a viewing target of 10 million by 2010 and revenue increasing to £1.4 billion, it seems that Sky TV is hardly suffering from the current ‘challenging conditions’ besetting so many firms.
Enter Ofcom, the independent regulator and competition authority for the UK’s communication industries that has been investigating the UK Pay TV industry since 2007. A consultation was published on the 26th June 2009 in which Ofcom indicated that BSkyB should be forced to make its premium sports and film channels available to rival broadcasters in a bid to ‘promote choice and innovation’. The articles below look at this conflict.
Sky may have to share TV channels BBC News (26/6/09)
Ofcom may set Sky’s wholesale prices Digital Spy, Andrew Laughlin (25/6/09)
Ofcom proposes measures to improve competition in pay TV Ofcom (26/6/09)
Pay TV Phase three document: Proposed remedies Ofcom Consultation (26/6/09)
BSkyB in war of words with Virgin Media and BT Guardian, Leigh Holmwood (24/6/09)
BSkyB keeps Premier League rights BBC Sport, Football (3/2/09)
Sky will fight Ofcom over Premium TV Tech Radar, Patrick Goss (26/6/09)
Pay TV market investigation: Consultation document Ofcom (18/12/07)
Sky asked to open up Premium sports and movies Times Online, Peter Stiff (26/6/09)
All believers in a competitive market must back Ofcom to take on Sky Telegraph, Neil Berkett (26/6/09)
Ofcom: Sky not playing fair with premium content Tech Radar, Patrick Goss (26/06/09)
- How well does BSkyB fit into a monopoly position for its premium content?
- What are the regulatory options open to Ofcom?
- How does Ofcom aim to introduce more competition and fairer prices into the Pay TV market?
- Why is it argued that competition is in the public’s best interest? Do you agree with this, or should BSkyB be allowed to carry on as it is?
- What has enabled Sky to become such a dominant force?
- How do you think the collapse of Setanta will affect this debate?
- Sky TV has seen its profits continuing to grow. Given that we’re in a recession, what does this tell us about Sky and the type of good or service that it supplies?