EU's charges against Microsoft over IE 'just silly,' says expert

Mozilla clarifies stance, says it hasn't made official recommendations to EU

The European Union's pursuit of Microsoft Corp. over new charges that Internet Explorer (IE) stifles browser competition is "silly" and "dumb," a noted antitrust expert said today.

"I just don't see what it adds to the final judgment in the U.S. case," said William Page, the co-author of The Microsoft Case: Antitrust, High Technology, and Consumer Welfare (University of Chicago Press, 2009) and a member of the faculty of the Levin College of Law at the University of Florida. "OEMs are already free to delete most of the visible evidence of [Internet Explorer] and to install another browser if they want."

Last month, the EU's Competition Commission served Microsoft with new allegations that focused on IE, the company's Web browser. According to antitrust agency, Microsoft's bundling of IE with Windows "distorts competition" in the browser market and gives IE "an artificial distribution advantage" over rivals such as Mozilla's Firefox, Apple's Safari and Opera Software's Opera.

Although the commission has not revealed the specific charges or said what it would want Microsoft to do to correct the situation, it has given some clues about the latter. They could include forcing Microsoft to "give users an objective opportunity to choose which competing Web browser(s) instead of, or in addition to, Internet Explorer they wanted to install in Windows," said commission spokesman Jonathan Todd in an e-mail. "Microsoft could also be ordered to technically allow the user to disable Internet Explorer code should the user choose to install a competing browser."

From where Page sits, it's all ancient history. "This is old hat," he said. "We've been over this a million times."

In the U.S. antitrust trust case against Microsoft, government regulators argued that the company smothered rival browsers by tying IE to Windows. Although the government won its case at trial, that was overturned on appeal. In the ensuing settlement between federal and state officials and Microsoft, the latter was not required to sever links between IE and Windows.

"The remedy [from the U.S. case] was for Microsoft to remove icons and menu items related to IE, and so forth, and give OEMs the flexibility to install another browser," said Page, who was a trial attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice's antitrust division for several years in the 1970s, long before the Microsoft case started.

"There's no [Windows reseller] I know of, though, that has actually installed a second browser," he said, adding that several, Dell Inc. among them, have talked about the idea. Dell has, in fact, discussed the possibility of installing Firefox as the default browser on its IdeaStorm community comment site.

Nor is something like that necessary today, Page said. "With the spread of broadband, downloading another browser isn't any big deal anymore," he said.

Mozilla Corp. disagrees. In a blog post last Friday, Mitchell Baker, the former CEO of Mozilla and currently chairwoman of the Mozilla Foundation, said she had "not the smallest iota of doubt" that the EU is on the right track. "Ive been involved in building and shipping Web browsers continuously since before Microsoft started developing IE, and the damage Microsoft has done to competition, innovation and the pace of the Web development itself is both glaring and ongoing," Baker said.

The EU has granted Mozilla permission to join the case against Microsoft, Todd confirmed Monday, which lets Mozilla submit arguments, see the charges and participate in any oral hearing that Microsoft requests.

Although Baker did not delve into the restrictions that Mozilla would like to see the EU impose, other Mozilla employees scoffed at the idea of making Microsoft add Firefox to Windows. In an interview with PCPro, Mike Conner, a Firefox software architect, said, "My personal view is that it's not the right outcome. The choice [when installing Windows] would be weird. There's no good UI [user interface] for that."

Mozilla, in fact, clarified its position Monday. "Mozilla as an organization has not developed a view of what remedies make sense," the group said in an e-mail reply to questions.

"It looks like the EU has revived the idea that the browser market is a separate market" from the operating system, said Page. "I think that consumers benefit when a browser is included with the operating system. It would be dumb to require Microsoft to delete IE [from Windows] and then require users to install a browser separately after they first use Windows. That's just silly."

Microsoft noted the EU's complaint when it was issued, and said it was "committed to conducting our business in full compliance with European law." In filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Microsoft confirmed that the EU is considering requiring the company to distribute other browsers with Windows.

Microsoft has until the middle of March to respond to the commission's charges, and it can request a hearing to spell out its position.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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