Microsoft on Thursday said it has refused to attend a European Commission hearing on charges that bundling the Internet Explorer Web browser with Windows is an abuse of its monopoly in the computer market.
The EC, the competition watchdog of the European Union, had scheduled the closed-door meeting for June 3-5 in Brussels, Belgium. The hearing gives Microsoft a chance to respond to the allegations orally. The EC claims Microsoft's inclusion of IE in Windows "harms competition between Web browsers, undermines product innovation, and ultimately reduces consumer choice."
Perhaps in response, Microsoft has said that the forthcoming Windows 7 operating system contains a switch that allows consumers to easily deactivate Explorer in favor of an alternate browser.
While insisting it wants to give its side, Microsoft said it decided to pass on the EC hearing because the dates coincide with a Zurich, Switzerland, meeting of the International Competition Network, "the most important worldwide intergovernmental competition law meeting."
"As a result, it appears that many of the most influential commission and national competition officials with the greatest interest in our case will be in Zurich and so unable to attend our hearing in Brussels," Dave Heiner, VP and deputy general counsel for Microsoft, said in a company blog.
Microsoft said it asked that the hearing be rescheduled, but the request was denied by the commission, which said the dates were the only time a suitable room is available in Brussels. Microsoft said it offered to find and outfit a room itself, but the offer was declined.
"Therefore, we reluctantly notified the commission that we will not proceed with a hearing on June 3-5," Heiner said. "While Microsoft maintains its request for a hearing at a different date, that request has been denied and the commission hearing officer has deemed Microsoft to have withdrawn its request for a hearing."
It was unclear how the case would be affected by the canceled hearing. The commission has said it could impose fines on Microsoft or force the company to ship versions of Windows in Europe that do not include Explorer.
Microsoft's bundling of IE with Windows led to an antitrust settlement in 2002 with the U.S. Justice Department. Microsoft is still closely watched by government attorneys to make sure it abides by the deal.
IE is one of several browsers that can be used with Windows. Others include Mozilla Firefox, Apple Safari, Google Chrome, and Opera. The fact that Firefox has gained share against IE is being used in Microsoft's argument against the EC's charges.
The latest spat with the EC is not the first time Microsoft has locked horns with the European trustbusters. Last year, the EC slapped the company with a $1.35 billion antitrust fine, claiming that Microsoft failed to make available to rivals documentation needed to create products that are interoperable with Windows.
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