Microsoft in Trouble With EU Again Over Browser Choice

European antitrust regulators say Microsoft violated a 2009 agreement to give European Windows users a choice of browsers in the operating system.

Microsoft has failed to offer Windows users in Europe a choice of Web browsers in the operating system, violating a commitment the software giant made almost three years ago, according to European antitrust regulators.

The European Commission—the antitrust arm of the European Union—issued a “statement of objections” Oct. 24 formally noting Microsoft’s noncompliance with the EC order, following an investigation that began in July.

“In December 2009, the commission had made legally binding on Microsoft commitments offered by the U.S. software company to address competition concerns related to the tying of Microsoft's Web browser, Internet Explorer, to its dominant client PC operating system Windows,” the commission said in the statement.

European regulators had been concerned about antitrust and anti-competitive issues stemming from Microsoft's making Internet Explorer the default browser in its widely used Windows operating system on PCs sold in Europe. The EC believed that Microsoft was leveraging its monopoly position in the PC software market to unfairly tamper with competition from other Web browsers.

In 2009, in an agreement with the EC, Microsoft officials agreed to offer a screen of browser choices to European users of its Windows OS through 2014, from which users could decide which browser they wanted to use. The agreement called for a choice screen that also featured such browsers as Mozilla’s Firefox and Google Chrome. However, regulators said in the statement of objections that Microsoft has failed to comply with the order, sparking the investigation.

Regulators said they take “the preliminary view that Microsoft has failed to roll out the browser choice screen with its Windows 7 Service Pack 1, which was released in February 2011. From February 2011 until July 2012, millions of Windows users in the EU may not have seen the choice screen. Microsoft has acknowledged that the choice screen was not displayed during that period.”

Microsoft officials in July admitted that they violated the agreement, blaming a “technical error” for the company being unable to deliver the Browser Choice Screen software in PCs that came with the Service Pack 1 update to Windows 7. The original Windows 7 OS, Windows Vista and Windows XP did include the choice screen starting in March 2010 on Windows-based PCs sold in Europe, but Windows 7 Service Pack 1 did not, leaving about 28 million PCs sold in Europe without the choice screen.

“We have fallen short in our responsibility to do this,” Microsoft officials said in a statement in July. “We deeply regret that this error occurred, and we apologize for it.”

The software company said it hired an outside legal firm to investigate how the technical error occurred, with the investigation including interviewing Microsoft employees and reviewing documents. Microsoft also volunteered to add another 15 months beyond 2014 to the time required to offer the Browser Choice Screen.

EU Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia at the time warned that if Microsoft was found to be in violation of the agreement, the company could face sanctions.

With the statement of objections published, Microsoft now has one month to reply, and no ruling will be made until the company has had a chance to defend itself, according to the EC. If regulators decide that Microsoft did violate the agreement, it could be fined up to 10 percent of its annual turnover, the agency said. That reportedly could be as high as $7 billion.

In a statement Oct. 24, Microsoft officials again apologized for the problem, and said steps had been taken to ensure that such an issue doesn’t happen again.

“In addition, after discussions with the commission, we are changing some aspects of the way the Browser Choice Screen works on Windows 8 and will have those changes implemented when Windows 8 launches later this week,” the officials said.