Microsoft not fooling anyone by using FairSearch front in antitrust complaint against Google

European competition expert calls group a 'Microsoft Trojan Horse'

Microsoft isn't fooling anyone by hiding behind a trade group to complain to European antitrust regulators about Google and its Android mobile operating system, a legal expert said today.

"FairSearch.org is seen by many observers here as a Microsoft Trojan Horse," said Nicolas Petit, a professor of competition law at the University of Liege in Belgium. "Everyone understands here in Brussels that it's Microsoft versus Google."

On Monday, FairSearch, a group whose 17 members include Microsoft, Nokia -- a Microsoft partner in mobile -- and Oracle, filed a complaint with the European Commission, the EU's antitrust agency, claiming that Google has abused Android's dominance in the smartphone space to deceive hardware partners, monopolize the marketplace, and control consumer data.

"We are asking the Commission to move quickly and decisively to protect competition and innovation in this critical market," said Thomas Vinje, FairSearch's chief counsel, in a statement. "Failure to act will only embolden Google to repeat its desktop abuses of dominance as consumers increasingly turn to a mobile platform dominated by Google's Android operating system."

According to metrics company comScore, at the end of 2012 Android led the European market, powering 50% of the smartphones in France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the U.K. Apple's iOS was in second place, with a 20% share, while 5% of those countries' devices relied on Microsoft's mobile operating systems.

The Commission declined to comment on the FairSearch filing, but confirmed it had received the complaint. Under its rules, the Commission can move forward on a formal investigation, or reject the complaint.

But the source of the claims is Microsoft, pure and simple. "No one is really fooled. Everyone knows that [FairSearch] lies in the shadow of Microsoft," Petit said.

Over the years, Microsoft has used several groups to urge the Commission to investigate its rival's business practices, including the Initiative for a Competitive Online Marketplace (ICOMP) and the Association for Competitive Technology (ACT). The former is largely funded by Microsoft, while Microsoft is one of several prominent members -- others include eBay and Oracle -- of the latter.

ICOMP, for example, has filed complaints with the Commission over Google's search practices, and a Microsoft-owned German firm was among those who fired off the original 2011 grievance that resulted in regulators investigating Google.

"It gives them the image of some sort of neutrality," said Petit of Microsoft's use of trade groups and consortiums to hit Google in the EU. "They want to avoid the impression that this is strictly a commercial dispute because it looks less aggressive and makes them appear like they're not in the driver's seat."

In actuality, Petit argued, Microsoft is calling the shots.

But Microsoft is not the only major player to do this, Petit noted. "It's not unusual, in fact it's becoming fairly conventional," he said of the tactic.

Microsoft has also been on the receiving end. The Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA), which counts Google as a member, was active in the Commission's antitrust case against Microsoft that wrapped up in 2007 and cost the company approximately $1.7 billion in fines.

Google already faces scrutiny by the Commission over its search practices, a case that has lingered since Nov. 2011. Two months ago, Google proposed a settlement, which Joaquin Almunia, the head of the Commission, is still mulling.

Petit said it's likely that Almunia will settle with Google over those older charges.

"The Commission has instructed all its services to close pending cases before next summer," said Petit, referring to 2014 and citing sources in Brussels. "Almunia's term ends in the fall of 2014, and he wants things on the fast track, to close cases and come to a resolution. He wants to show a good record before his term expires."

Microsoft declined to comment, instead pointing to the FairSearch press release (download PDF) and noting that other companies, including Nokia and Oracle, are members of the group.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com.

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