E.U. to Microsoft: Brother, can you spare a dime?

European Commission's itty-bitty fine on Microsoft skirts real need: Holding crooked execs responsible for their actions

The E.U. came down like a hammer on Microsoft's head yesterday, fining the software giant a whopping $731 million for failing to provide users of Windows 7 a clear and distinct choice of Web browser.

To which Microsoft quietly replied, "Thank you, sirs, may we have another?"

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As Quartz blogger Chris Mims points out, this fine is so infinitesimal relative to the $51 billion in cash Microsoft has amassed from its European operations alone -- money that is exempt from the 35 percent U.S. corporate tax -- that it amounts to a small service charge on Microsoft's profits.

Mims writes, "Given that Microsoft can't figure out what else to do with its cash, that may simply be the cost of maintaining market share for its desktop browser."

Does any of this sound at all familiar?

Serial offenders

I just did a Google search for "Microsoft fined by EU." On InfoWorld's site alone there are a dozen hits: $613 billion in 2004, $357 million in 2006, and $1.3 billion in 2008 among them, for a total of some $2.6 billion in fines over merely those four years.

Boy, the E.U. commissioners sure showed Microsoft, didn't they? Just like the FTC showed Google when it fined the company $22.5 million -- almost five hours' worth of revenue -- for ignoring user privacy settings in Safari. Or when the SEC fined Oracle $2 million for bribing government officials in India.

The obvious conclusion: Fines don't work. They might be a way for bureaucrats to demonstrate they're earning their cushy taxpayer-funded salaries, but as a deterrent they're less than useless. If you want someone to stop breaking the rules, you need to put a few of them in orange jumpsuits and leg manacles and make them do the perp walk for the cameras. Even then your odds of compliance will be only so-so.

I am not saying someone from Microsoft should do time for failing to provide a pop-up window offering users a choice of Internet Explorer, Chrome, or Firefox. That whole notion seems rather quaint at this point. Microsoft would put its time and money to better use by building a more secure, more privacy-friendly browser -- as it seems to have done with IE10. Frankly, what browser people use is less and less important over time.

In fact, I'm having a hard time coming up with high-tech crimes in recent memory that warrant prison sentences. Most of them are pretty obvious scams or stock swindles that involved other crimes (though I think the culprits in the HP spying scandal got off way too easy).

But there's no lack of white collar crime in other industries -- mostly financial services -- that are worthy of quality time in the big house. The real white collar criminals in the new millennium are, of course, bankers.

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