EU resolves Microsoft IE antitrust case

Microsoft and the European Commission have settled their differences over the choice of Web browsers in Windows.

European Commissioner for Competition Policy Neelie Kroes on Wednesday formally announced a resolution to the Internet Explorer antitrust case against Microsoft. As part of the settlement, Windows PCs sold in the European Economic Area will now present users with a Choice Screen, allowing them to install alternative browsers beyond Internet Explorer.

The Choice Screen will offer users the ability to install up to 12 of the most widely used Web browsers that run under Windows, including Firefox, Safari, Google Chrome, and Opera. Users can download as many of the browsers as they wish or stick with Internet Explorer. Additionally, computer makers and users in Europe will be able to turn off IE totally and set up other browsers as the default. As part of the settlement, Microsoft is also prohibited from preventing the choice of different browsers through any contractual or technical means.

Microsoft initially proposed stripping a browser out of Windows 7 entirely, a move first reported by CNET. Both competitors and the EU balked at that idea though, instead favoring some sort of ballot screen. Microsoft eventually relented, though the company and its rivals have gone back and forth for a while over the details.

Based on feedback it received, Microsoft modified and improved its design, according to the EC. The screen now appears in a neutral window, rather than an Internet Explorer window, and displays the browsers in a random order. The screen itself looks cleaner and less cluttered to the EC, which it believes will help users better focus on making their browser choice.

Microsoft has promised to make the screen available for five years in the European Economic Area and to offer it for Windows XP, Vista, and Windows 7, according to Europe’s antitrust regulators.

“Millions of European consumers will benefit from this decision by having a free choice about which web browser they use,” said Kroes. “Such choice will not only serve to improve people’s experience of the internet now but also act as an incentive for web browser companies to innovate and offer people better browsers in the future.”

Starting six months from now, Microsoft must report regularly to the Commission on its progress in implementing the new commitments, and the Commission can review the commitments two years from now.

After the EU announced the news, Microsoft issued its own statement on the resolution of the long-running, and expensive, antitrust case.

“We are embarking on a path that will require significant change within Microsoft. Nevertheless, we believe that these are important steps that resolve these competition law concerns,” Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith said in the statement. “This is an important day and a major step forward, and we look forward to building a new foundation for the future in Europe.”

The U.S. Justice Department, which waged its own years-long antitrust battle with Microsoft, applauded the outcome of the EU’s case.

“As we understand it, the settlement is based on measures to enhance competition and is designed to preserve industry participants’ incentives and ability to compete going forward. A settlement that helps to clarify obligations under European law allows the industry to move forward,” Christine Varney, assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s antitrust division, said in a statement.

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