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Court tells EU to reopen MS antitrust investigation

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A French software reseller may have forced the European Commission to reopen an investigation into Microsoft, following a decision by a European court earlier today. The Commission dismissed a complaint made to it by Micro Leader Business in 1996 last year, but the EU's lower court, the Court of First Instance, has now ruled that it was wrong to do so. Micro Leader had been importing French-language Microsoft software from Canada, but was blocked from doing so by Microsoft. The French company claims that this was a violation of European antitrust rules, as the move stopped the company from competing with Microsoft's 'official' French channel. The Commission threw the complaint out on the basis that banning cheap imports was not in itself evidence that Microsoft was colluding with its channel partners to fix prices. Lesser intellects might muse that keeping out cheap product might in some way be connected with maintaining higher prices, but the Commission no doubt had its reasons. These might themselves be connected with its decision not to pursue Micro Leader's other claim, that Microsoft was abusing a monopoly position (stop us if you've heard that one before). The court thinks the Commission got that one wrong as well, but it's easy to see why. In the run-up to the US Government's antitrust action against Microsoft the US authorities and the European Commission divvied up responsibility for antitrust action. This was done for fairly logical reasons, as it clearly doesn't make sense for both the US and the European authorities to go after the same companies, perhaps coming up with embarrassingly divergent conclusions. The DoJ drew Microsoft, and Europe studiously stood well back, reserving its rights to join in later if it didn't like the outcome. Its eagerness to avoid pursuing Micro Leader's claims is therefore eminently explicable, if possibly legally wrong. The Commission can now reopen the investigation, or lodge an appeal during the next two months. If it chooses not to appeal, it's perfectly possible that various other European claims against Microsoft (several of them also French) could start to rattle out of the closet. Another millennium, another antitrust investigation... ®

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