EC ruling 'will speed up future actions'

The fine handed down to Microsoft by the European Commission is the biggest ever, but Mario Monti says this is small change compared to the value of having a framework for future actions against Microsoft

The European Commission's investigation into Microsoft's anti-competitive behaviour may have taken five years, but future actions - whether they are against Microsoft or any other company - will be much quicker as a result.

Such actions would be easier from the start because the investigation into Microsoft has helped clarify just what is, and is not, anti-competitive behaviour. The fact that the case against Microsoft hinged on an unresolved area of law, left some legal observers incredulous that such a large fine could be levied for something which, they say, "nobody knew was illegal".

Speaking at a packed press conference in Brussels to announce the EC's ruling, competition commissioner Mario Monti said that during the course of the investigation it became clear that formal procedures were needed for such cases.

Responding to questions about the length of time it took the Commission to complete this investigation into Microsoft, Monti said speed is one of the main reasons why it is important to establish this precedent in a formal decision. He said he hoped the decision would survive beyond possible court phases "so that we don't have to start from scratch every time in future with a very protracted analysis."

While Monti acknowledged that such antitrust investigations could not go ahead without some initial analysis, he said the case had established a framework for defining the conduct that should be observed by "a very dominant company such that their position the market is not abused".

Monti warned against placing too much emphasis on the value of the €497m fine handed out to Microsoft, even though it is the largest ever levied by the EC against a company. "What I value most," he said, "are the remedies and the framework that the case provides for future cases involving Microsoft. As to the deterrent, I believe there may be an indirect aspect there to the extent that the decision by the European decision may be used in private actions against the company."

This aspect of the case meant that the Commission had to be extremely careful about the quality of its decision-making process, said Monti. "We have also introduced a deep system of cross-examination and of checks and balances." Monti said this was essential to ensure that the rights of Microsoft were not infringed. "I am confident that we have introduced a decision that will stand before the Court of Appeal."

Microsoft still faces several other antitrust lawsuits around the world. In December 2003, RealNetworks launched its own civil antitrust lawsuit in the US, seeking $1bn in damages on charges that the software giant illegally using its Windows monopoly to limit consumer choice in digital media. And in February the Japanese Fair Trade Commission said it believed Microsoft imposed unfair conditions on computer manufacturers wanting to license its Windows XP operating system software.