Microsoft seeks US support in EU antitrust battle

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Microsoft has launched a covert lobbying campaign to persuade the US administration and US businesses to intervene in its long-running antitrust battle with the European Union.

Microsoft officials have met White House and Department of Justice staff and asked them to back the legal challenge launched by the group against last year's landmark antitrust ruling by the European Commission, the EU's executive body.

Microsoft has also sent a memo to several US companies, including at least one pharmaceuticals group, asking them to lobby the US government in its support.

The memo, a copy of which has been obtained by the FT, gives the names and telephone numbers of the two US officials to contact one in the Department of Justice and a special adviser to the White House. It suggests four “talking points” that should be raised. One states: “I understand that Microsoft has asked the US government to intervene directly in the trade secrets case, and I wanted you to know that our company supports that request.”

The Commission, the EU's top antitrust watchdog, found last year that Microsoft had violated competition rules by abusingits dominant position in the market for computer operating systems.

The group was ordered to pay a record fine of €497m ($583m) and forced to change its business practices. Microsoft has appealed against the ruling, but a court decision on the challenge is not expected until next year at the earliest.

In August, Microsoft launched a second legal challenge, this time specifically attacking a later Commission decision which the group says would allow rival companies to access, use and distribute valuable Microsoft trade secrets. It is this case that Microsoft wants the US government to intervene in by formally joining the court proceedings in support of the group's case.

In the memo, companies are asked to tell the US officials that “the European Commission's trade secrets decision will establish a precedent that could adversely impact the value of trade secrets which are substantial business assets for many US companies, including mine”.

A spokesman for Microsoft said: “In recent years, the European Commission and EU member state governments have intervened in a number of competition cases and appeals in the United States. It makes sense for theUS government to offer its views in a similar way under the procedures established by European courts, where the issue has broad implications for the global economy.”

The US government and the Commission are regularly contacted by companies asking them to lobby the authorities of other countries, and Washington has repeatedly raised the Microsoft case with Brussels.

“It is not unusual for companies to present their views to the department. Generally speaking, in every matter we make our decisions based on the facts and the law,” said a spokesperson for the US justice department. However, it is extremely rare for a non-European government to become an intervening party in a court appeal against a Commission antitrust ruling.

The Commission refused to comment.

Additional reporting by Stephanie Kirchgaessner in Washington

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