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EU ends full-time antitrust oversight of Microsoft

Dismisses expert who monitored '04 ruling; new probe into IE to continue

March 4, 2009 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Antitrust regulators in the European Union today closed the book on their 2004 case against Microsoft Corp., announcing that they are dropping full-time oversight of the company.

"In light of changes in Microsoft's behavior, the increased opportunity for third parties to exercise their rights directly before national courts and experience gained since the adoption of the 2004 decision, the commission no longer requires a full-time monitoring trustee to assess Microsoft's compliance," the EU's Competition Commission said Wednesday in a statement.

Instead, the commission will turn to technical consultants only when it needs them.

The 2004 ruling, which was upheld last September by the EU's second-highest court, charged Microsoft with stifling competition by "tying" Windows Media Player to Windows and by using its dominant position in the desktop operating system market to grab a bigger share of the server market.

When the commission ruled against Microsoft, it demanded that the company produce versions of Windows that omit Windows Media Player and provide technical documentation that would allow rivals to develop software that works smoothly with Windows.

Neil Barrett, a British academic who specializes in computer science and cybercrime, was appointed in 2005 by European Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes to evaluate the technical information and oversee Microsoft's compliance. Barrett was one of several people nominated by Microsoft for the spot.

"Given that the original set of interoperability information has already been documented by Microsoft ... the nature of the technical assistance that the commission requires is now of a more ad hoc character," said the commission.

Although it balked for years -- and came under fire from Kroes for its refusal to toe the EU's line -- Microsoft eventually reduced licensing fees for its communication protocols to a level acceptable to the commission. In early 2008, the company began publishing much of that technical information to the Web, where developers could access it free of charge.

But as the commission reduced its oversight, it reminded Microsoft that the company still has to fly straight. "Microsoft has an ongoing obligation to supply complete and accurate interoperability information as specified in the commission's 2004 Microsoft decision," the agency said today.

The decision to boot Barrett will have no affect on a newer antitrust investigation into Microsoft's business practices, however. In January, the commission accused Microsoft of stymieing competition in the browser market by tying Internet Explorer (IE) to Windows.

That charge, which stemmed from a 2007 complaint by Oslo-based browser maker Opera Software ASA, has attracted other rivals of IE: Both Google Inc. and Mozilla Corp., which produce Chrome and Firefox, respectively, have asked the commission to grant them "interested party" status.

Microsoft has another week to respond to the new EU accusations.

Read more about Windows in Computerworld's Windows Topic Center.

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