The European Union has formally accused Microsoft of failing to comply with its obligation to explicitly prompt Windows users to consider alternative browsers. It could mean a significant penalty if Microsoft can’t explain it away as an honest blunder.
In 2010, the EU concluded an investigation into whether bundling Internet Explorer with Windows was unfair to developers of rival browsers. It ruled the Microsoft must present a list of browsers for users to choose from when starting Windows for the first time on a new machine.
Although Microsoft agreed to do so until 2014, it later emerged that it failed to include the “browser ballot” in Service Pack 1 of Windows 7. That means it won’t appear on start-up for the estimated 28 million people who bought a new Windows 7 machine that the manufacturer had already updated to SP 1.
The EU announced in July that it was investigating the issue. It’s now formally sent a “statement of objections” to Microsoft to say that it has failed to comply. Were this a criminal investigation, this would be roughly equivalent to the moment when formal charges are laid. Microsoft now has the right to reply in writing and to request a formal hearing.
If Microsoft doesn’t do so, or if the hearing goes against it, the consequences could be serious. It’s uncharted waters as this is the first time the EU has investigated a violation of its own orders in an antitrust case. In theory Microsoft could be fined up to 10 percent of its global turnover, which would be in the region of $7 billion, though nobody is really expecting that.
Microsoft insists that not including the ballot was a technical error rather than a deliberate policy, but says it takes responsibility.
It may well be that the case ends with a token fine and a warning. Interestingly the New York Times is speculating that the investigation may be a formality and the goal isn’t so much to punish Microsoft for a blunder as to serve notice to other firms — such as Google — that they have to take any antitrust settlement seriously and stick to its conditions.