Microsoft warned by EU antitrust authority


Europe’s top antitrust authority has ordered Microsoft to change how it features Internet Explorer in Windows 8 on the eve of the US group’s most important operating system release in decades.

In a double blow for Microsoft as it prepares for its setpiece launch today, Joaquín Almunia, the EU’s competition commissioner, threatened the firm with hefty fines for a settlement breach and demanded that it amend Windows 8 to avoid further trouble.

While Microsoft has rushed out modifications to ensure the Windows 8 launch is compliant, the timing of the Brussels intervention is an embarrassing and unwelcome reminder of its record as an antitrust delinquent.

The US tech giant has recently attempted to repair its reputation after a bruising, decade-long battle with the EU Commission, nursing fines of more than €1.6 billion, the bulk of which related to non-compliance penalties.

In a more positive development for Microsoft, Mr Almunia said he found no reason to open a full investigation into tablet devices running its version of Windows 8 on low-power Arm processors.

Mr Almunia gave the warning as he issued formal charges against Microsoft for flouting a landmark 2009 antitrust settlement that required it to offer consumers a choice of web browsers.

The release of a “statement of objections” is largely a procedural formality, as Microsoft has already profusely apologised for failing to include a “browser choice” screen in 28 million versions of Windows delivered this year, contrary to assurances it gave Brussels.

While Mr Almunia has made clear the breach is likely to deserve a “severe” fine, he has yet to decide on the level. The decision is taking on added significance as a benchmark for enforcement because this is the first case of a voluntary settlement being violated. The commission can impose fines of up to 10 per cent of Microsoft’s global revenue.

“If companies enter into commitments, they must do what they are committed to do or face the consequences,” Mr Almunia said. “Companies should be deterred from any temptation to renege on promises or even to neglect their duty.”

Over the past few weeks, the commission also privately raised concerns about Windows 8, asking for specific amendments to avoid another fight over Microsoft complying with its settlement.

Microsoft said it “sincerely apologised” for the technical mistake that broke the promises it made on the browser choice screen. –(c) 2012 The Financial Times Limited