Microsoft Windows Browser Choice Under EU Investigation

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Microsoft faces an epic fine if it is found to have lied about compliance

European Commission has today opened an investigation to establish whether Microsoft followed rules set out in a December 2009 agreement, which forced it to offer a choice of alternatives to the Internet Explorer web browser.

The Commission said it has obtained fresh evidence that suggests millions of Europeans who are using Windows 7 have never seen the automatic “ballot screen” offering a choice of browsers, although Microsoft had claimed it followed the agreement to the letter. It now faces heavy fines if found to have breached the agreement.

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In 2009, Microsoft signed a legally binding agreement designed to offset its dominance in the browser market, caused by the bundling of Internet Explorer with almost every copy of Windows since 1995.

Under the agreement, the company was expected to offer an automatic “ballot screen” that would let European Windows users choose between 12 different browsers. Microsoft opted for this solution over the unpleasant alternative of removing traces of any browsers from Windows 7 altogether.

The ballot screen was provided as of March 2010 and was supposed to be available at least until 2014.

However, the Commission said it has received information that indicates Microsoft failed to introduce the browser choice screen with the first Service Pack for Windows 7, despite claims to the contrary made in the vendor’s annual report.

The Commission claimed “millions of Windows users in the EU may have not seen the choice screen”, and has promised to treat the case as a matter of priority.

“We take compliance with our decisions very seriously. And I trusted the company’s reports were accurate. But it seems that was not the case, so we have immediately taken action. If following our investigation, the infringement is confirmed, Microsoft should expect sanctions,” said Joaquín Almunia, vice president of the Commission in charge of competition policy.

If the Commission finds that Microsoft has breached legally binding commitments, it may be fined up to 10 percent of its total annual turnover.  Which, in this particular case, would be up to 10 percent of Microsoft’s $69.94 billion revenue for 2011, or almost $7 billion.

That would make the company’s record-breaking €860 million antitrust fine, imposed by European regulators in 2008, look like small change.

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