Opera files EU antitrust suit against Microsoft

Opera Software has filed an antitrust suit against Microsoft in the European Union, accusing it of stifling competition by tying its Internet Explorer Web browser to Windows, the Norwegian company said Thursday.

The complaint, which was filed with the European Commission on Wednesday, says Microsoft is abusing its dominant position in the desktop PC market by offering only Internet Explorer as a standard part of Windows, and hindering interoperability by not following accepted standards with IE.

Opera is asking the Commission, the executive branch of the European Union, to force Microsoft to unbundle IE from Windows, or include other browsers as a standard part of its operating system. It also wants it to require Microsoft to adhere to industry standards with its Web browser.

The issue of standards is seen as important because if all Web browsers do not use the same standards, Web site developers are likely to design their Web sites to work with the most widely-used browser, which is Internet Explorer. That gives people a disincentive to use other browsers.

Microsoft said it will cooperate with any antitrust investigation that may result from the Opera complaint.

“We believe the inclusion of the browser into the operating system benefits consumers, and that consumers and PC manufacturers already are free to choose any browsers they wish,” the company said in a statement.

Opera said it filed the complaint on behalf of all consumers who are tired of having a monopolist make choices for them.

The European Committee for Interoperable Systems (ECIS), a Brussels-based trade group that counts Opera among its members, said it strongly endorses Opera’s move.

“By tying its Internet Explorer product to its monopoly Windows operating system and refusing to faithfully implement industry accepted open standards, Microsoft deprives consumers of a real choice in internet browsers. Browsers are the gateway to the internet. Microsoft seeks to control this gateway,” said Thomas Vinje, speaking for ECIS.

Opera’s complaint signals a potentially new front in Microsoft’s long-running battle with the European authorities, and comes three months after the Court of First Instance (CFI) — Europe’s second highest court — threw out Microsoft’s appeal of a 2004 European Commission antitrust ruling against it.

The CFI endorsed the Commission’s finding that Microsoft had illegally bundled its media playing software, Media Player, into Windows, exploiting its monopoly in the desktop operating system market to gain influence in the market for desktop media player software.

There are parallels between Opera’s complaint and the earlier antitrust suit, Commission competition spokesman Jonathan Todd said at the Commission’s midday briefing.

“We will study [Opera’s complaint] carefully in light of the case law set in the Court of First Instance judgement in September,” he said.

However, the Commission’s remedy against Microsoft’s bundling has proved useless, which may weaken the value of the 2004 ruling as a legal precedent.

The Commission ordered Microsoft to sell a second version of Windows that has Media Player stripped out. Microsoft christened the second version Edition N, and put it on the market in 2005, at the same price as the fully bundled Windows. Not surprisingly, no one bought it.

Microsoft disputes both aspects of the Opera complaint.

It claims that computer users have complete freedom of choice “to use and set as default any browser they wish, including Opera, and PC manufacturers can also preinstall any browser as the default on any Windows machine they sell,” Microsoft said.

Concerning the complaint that it has been undermining open web standards to its own advantage, Microsoft said “Internet Explorer has been an integral part of the Windows operating system for over a decade and supports a wide range of web standards.”

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