Microsoft pulls out of EC browser hearing

While the company says key officials were not going to attend the hearing, the EC claims commissioner Neelie Kroes was set to hear arguments

Microsoft has withdrawn from a European hearing into whether its bundling of Internet Explorer with Windows contravenes antitrust laws.

The software company said on Thursday that it had pulled out of the hearing, which it had requested after European Commission regulators found in January that the tying of Internet Explorer with Windows constituted anti-competitive practices. Commission officials were due to hear oral evidence from Microsoft in its defence.

Microsoft deputy general counsel Dave Heiner wrote in a blog post that the software maker had withdrawn from the hearing because some Commission officials would not able to attend.

"While we would like an opportunity to present our arguments in an oral hearing, we do not think it makes sense to proceed if so many of the most important EC officials and national competition authorities cannot attend," wrote Heiner. "Therefore, we reluctantly notified the Commission that we will not proceed with a hearing on 3-5 June."

The date set for Microsoft's hearing coincides with an International Competition Network event in Zurich, which some senior Commission competition officials are expected to attend.

However, Commission competition spokesman Jonathon Todd told ZDNet UK on Friday that the Commission would have been represented at the hearing by competition commissioner Neelie Kroes.

"The Commission would have been represented at the very highest level by commissioner Neelie Kroes, had the hearing gone ahead," said Todd. He added that while the hearing would have given Microsoft a chance to repeat its written arguments in the case, no new evidence could have been submitted. 

Heiner said Microsoft had asked to present oral arguments at a different date, but the request had been denied. "The Commission hearing officer has deemed Microsoft to have withdrawn its request for a hearing," Heiner added. Todd said that now Microsoft had withdrawn its request, the next stage would be for the Commission to consider the company's written statements.

Opera, the browser company that sparked the European investigation with its anti-competition complaint against Microsoft in 2007, noted that if the cancelled hearing had not been scheduled so quickly, it could have drawn out the proceedings.

"The Commission was very speedy in setting the date of the hearing, and is committed to moving ahead," Håkon Wium Lie, Opera's chief technology officer, told ZDNet UK on Friday. "Obviously, it is not in Microsoft's interests if there is a conclusion to the case which requires it to change its product in any way."

Commissioner Neelie Kroes is due to end her current term as commissioner in October. After that, a new commissioner could be appointed, which could also affect the case. Todd said that Kroes wanted to see a conclusion before the autumn. "It is the desire of Neelie Kroes to take a decision before the end of her current term in October," he said.

The other complainants in the antitrust case, who will now not have the opportunity to question Microsoft about its business practices at the hearing, include Google, Mozilla, Symantec and McAfee.