19th Mar 2018

New anti-trust complaint looms over Microsoft

  • Defender is an anti-malware installed for free for Windows buyers. (Photo: UK Ministry of Defence)

Several security software producers have complained to the European Commission about Microsoft, with one of them drafting an official anti-trust request.

A high-level EU official from the commission's directorate-general for competition (DG COMP) told Investigate Europe that at least three security software companies “met several times” with the EU executive over the US firm's alleged abuse of market position as a supplier.

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The companies were “very angry”, the official said, adding that “a formal complaint could arrive soon".

A Russian company, Kaspersky Lab, is "currently preparing the application”, a spokesperson at the company told Investigate Europe.

The dispute targets a free security software add-on, Defender, which is included by default in Microsoft's latest operating system.

“We think that Microsoft has been using its dominating position in the market of operating systems to create competitive advantages for its own product”, the company's boss, Yevgeny Kaspersky, recently wrote on his blog.

He argued that Microsoft "is foisting its Defender on the user" and that it weakens computers' protection against cyber-attacks because it "infringes upon the interests of independent developers of security products".

Kaspersky Lab, a company based in Moscow and operated by a holding in the United Kingdom, ranks fourth in the global ranking of antivirus vendors by revenue.

Following a complaint from Kaspersky, the Russian antitrust authority opened a formal investigation targeting Microsoft last November.

Other software companies contacted by Investigate Europe confirmed that they are lobbying the commission to address Microsoft’s competition tactics.

Some of them are considering filing complaints, but have so far refrained from doing so, because of the high costs such a case could bring and the time it would take to solve it.

“Anti-trust complaints are expensive and take too long”, a spokesman from one company told Investigate Europe.

Speaking under anonymity, he said that his company prefers to hold dialogue with DG COMP over the issue, rather than openly accuse Microsoft.

In one “confidential memo” sent to DG COMP last year, one security software supplier complained that Microsoft has broadened its definition of Microsoft Windows operating system to distribute other Microsoft software.

Microsoft is “taking an artificial distribution advantage versus other competitors, an advantage which is not related to the merits of the software products themselves," said the memo, seen by Investigative Europe.

"In summary, for Microsoft, any Microsoft software can or will be made or ‘presented as’ a component of Windows,” it said.

Another company, which also asked to remain anonymous, argued that "from a security perspective, it can actually be risky to have Microsoft aggressively pushing, exclusively, its own anti-malware product, because of the monoculture risk."

Back in 2012, Microsoft lost an anti-trust case opened by the European Commission in 1998 and was fined around €1 billion for integrating its Media Player and Internet Explorer softwares into the Windows operating system.

The DG COMP official, who worked on the Microsoft anti-trust case, said that the commission is “aware” of Microsoft's competition tactics.

“Microsoft is abusing its dominant position” to fetch contracts, the source said, adding that the commission could not act at the moment.

“Because our current focus is on Google, but also because of our way of acting, we’re waiting for a formal complaint from a competitor in order to have a stronger position," the official explained.

In practice however, the commission does not have to open any formal infringement procedure, “even if it considers a breach has occurred”, according to EU rules.

Microsoft Europe did not wish to comment when Investigate Europe requested an interview.

Maria Maggiore, Paulo Pena and Crina Boros contributed to this article for Investigate Europe, a pan-european journalists network of which EUobserver is a media partner.

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