Microsoft urges EU to hold public hearing

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Microsoft has called on the European Commission to open up to the public a crucial hearing that will be held later this month to review the regulator’s latest antitrust charges against the US software group.

Such hearings present companies accused of violating competition law with a last chance to defend themselves before the Commission rules on their case.

Microsoft faces antitrust fines of up to €2m a day unless it can persuade the regulator that it has in fact complied with Brussels’ landmark ruling of March 2004 that found the group guilty of abusing its dominant market position.

Commission hearings - which are also attended by officials from the 25 EU member states - are always held behind in closed doors, largely to shield the companies involved and guard against the release of sensitive business secrets.

But a spokesman for the group told the Financial Times on Tuesday: “We waive our right to a confidential hearing to ensure a full and fair examination of the issues in this case. This is a vitally important case with serious implications not just for Microsoft, but for companies and industries across Europe.”

The latest move by Microsoft illustrates the US software giant’s growing frustration with what it claims are the unfair and even illegal methods employed by the European Union’s top antitrust regulator.

The group has in recent weeks complained vociferously about alleged miscarriages, saying it has been denied access to important documents and that rivals such as IBM and Sun enjoy undue influence on the Commission investigation.

In an attempt to counter Commission pressure, Microsoft has increasingly sought to win allies by dragging its battle with Brussels into the public domain. Last month, it took the unusual step of publishing its lengthy defence against the latest Commission antitrust charges.

Before that, it presented to journalists a plan to assuage the Commission’s concerns by releasing parts of the Windows source code to journalists - even before it notified the regulator.

However, Microsoft faces an uphill struggle in persuading the Commission to throw open to the public the hearing on March 30. The Commission said it had already refused such a request in February, saying there was no legal basis for companies to waive their right to a confidential hearing.

“The risk would be that presentations from the various parties would play to the gallery rather than throw light on the issues at stake in the case. These rules have ensured that oral hearings have taken place in a constructive and productive atmosphere over the past 20 years,” a Commission spokesman said.

But a Microsoft spokesman said the group has filed a new request to open up the hearing on Tuesday.

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