Microsoft could become subject to another formal antitrust investigation by the European Commission, after it was reported that questions are being asked about its Azure cloud business.

Reuters reported last Friday that it has seen a EU questionnaire, which seeks answers from Microsoft’s rivals and customers about Redmond’s cloud business and licensing deals.

This questionnaire could be a prelude to an official EU antitrust investigation of Microsoft’s Azure business. It could also thrust the American software giant back under European regulatory scrutiny.

Previous fines

The European Commission has previously fined Microsoft a total 1.6 billion euros ($1.8 billion) for abusing its dominant position in the market for PC software.

After that, Microsoft faced a couple of other EC antitrust probes.

The first of which involved the inclusion of Internet Explorer (IE) within Windows; the second dealt with the ability of Microsoft Word and Excel to successfully interact with other applications.

In 2009 Microsoft had pledged that PC users setting up Windows for the first time would see a “choice screen” offering 11 different browser options.

But that prompt disappeared during a Windows 7 update.

The EC fined Microsoft $730m in 2013 for breaching that a five-year commitment to give European customers a choice about which browser to use.

Microsoft also faced similar antitrust lawsuits in the United States in the 1990s and early 2000s over its tactic of using its dominant position with Windows to promote its Internet Explorer browser over rivals such as the now-defunct Netscape Navigator.

Antitrust questions

But now Microsoft is once again under EU regulatory scrutiny after German software provider NextCloud, France’s OVHcloud and two other companies filed complaints about Microsoft’s cloud practices, Reuters reported.

“The Commission has information that Microsoft may be using its potentially dominant position in certain software markets to foreclose competition regarding certain cloud computing services,” Reuters quoted the questionnaire as saying.

The EU regulators asked if the terms in Microsoft’s licensing deals with cloud service providers allow rivals to compete effectively.

They also reportedly want to know if companies needed Microsoft’s operating systems and productivity applications to complement their own cloud infrastructure offering in order to compete effectively.

Companies also were asked about the differences in license fees and commercial terms between the licensing deals with cloud service providers and another programme in which they package and indirectly resell Microsoft’s cloud services together with their own.

Another focus was potential technical limitations on cloud storage services available on companies’ cloud infrastructure.

“We’re continuously evaluating how we can best support partners and make Microsoft software available to customers across all environments, including those of other cloud providers,” Microsoft responded in an emailed statement to Reuters.

The questionnaire is something of a surprise, considering EU antitrust chief Margrethe Vestager last week said she has no concerns yet about cloud computing.

Margrethe Vestager.  European Commission

Last month Vestager said the European Commission will evaluate its antitrust enforcement framework, to ensure it is truly fit for the digital age.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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