Update: Europe probes if Microsoft pressured rivals in browser case

Antitrust agency also queries competitors on remedies to Internet Explorer's alleged unfair advantage

The European Commission is asking PC makers and software rivals if Microsoft has been pressuring them in connection with the ongoing antitrust case concerning Web browsers, one company said Tuesday. The Commission, Europe's top competition regulator, has sent around a questionnaire concerning its preferred remedy for restoring fair competition in the browser market.

Most of the nine questions seek feedback on the remedy, which would involve the creation of a so-called "ballot screen" containing a list of browsers that users would refer to when connecting their new PCs to the Internet for the first time.

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They ask questions including the following: which browsers the companies believe should be included on the ballot screen, how the screen should be designed, and whether the browsers' software should be preloaded in full or if the ballot screen should just include a link that would allow easy downloading of the browsers, according to one executive who has seen the questionnaire.

But three of the questions try to ascertain whether Microsoft is trying to influence the outcome of a procedure known as market testing of the remedy, in Commission speak. "They ask if Microsoft has exerted untoward pressure on us in the market testing process," said the company executive who asked not to be named.

"These three questions show that the Commission is wary of Microsoft influencing  the market testing procedure," said a competition lawyer involved in the case who also insisted that he should not be named.

Microsoft said it hasn't seen the questionnaire but the OEMs that have seen it have told the company they have "serious concerns about the financial and operational impact of the ballot screen remedy," Microsoft said in a statement.

"We have encouraged them to share their concerns with the commission," the company said.

The deadline for replies to the questionnaire is this Friday.

This story was updated on June 9, 2009

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.