Microsoft fined by myopic EU

The most expensive line of code ever?

Microsoft has been charged €561m for breaching an EU order requiring the company to offer every new user of a Windows PC a choice about which web browser they use. The Guardian's Charles Arthur reports:

The error arose when Microsoft's own programmers forgot to include a single line of code that would have automatically triggered the "browser choice" program on versions of Windows 7 running its first major update, called Service Pack 1 (SP1).

A source close to Microsoft explained: "It was a single line in the code that triggered the browser choice program. It had a list of versions of Windows to test against: if the version was found in that list, the program would run. They didn't include Service Pack 1, which is effectively a different version of Windows, in that list. And so the program didn't run."

From a rule-of-law point of view, the EU had no option but to charge Microsoft for the breach. It had mandated the company to provide an option; the company had failed to comply with that order.

But the order itself is desperately out of date. It goes back to the fact that Microsoft abused its monopoly over desktop PCs in the late 1990s to ensure Internet Explorer became the dominant web browser, beating the then-leader Netscape Navigator. It was a classic anti-competitive move, and the American Department of Justice accordingly took Microsoft to court, settling in 2001.

But by the time the EU took similar action, in 2009, the computing landscape was completely different. Browsers were no longer just optional extras; they were integral to shipping a PC which worked out of the box at all. The EU could not realistically require the company to ship a version of Windows without any browser, as it had done in 2001 when similar action was brought over the company's bundling of Windows Media Player. And so it required the company to offer users a choice of browser on the first boot-up of Windows 7, instead.

The arbitrary distinction between what does, and doesn't, count as legitimate for Microsoft to bundle in to Windows 7 renders the whole case nonsensical. The company also bundles a calculator, basic text editor, online gaming service and several card games in with the OS, but faces no pressure to strip them out. Meanwhile, Apple, despite having as great a lead in the tablet market (depending on whether e-readers are defined as tablets) as Microsoft does for desktop PCs, faces no legal pressure to offer users a choice as to whether Safari is the default browser for iPads.

There are still ways Microsoft could abuse its monopoly. Requiring any hardware vendor which wants to make PCs and phones to exclusively use Windows on both, for instance, would be pretty clear-cut. But it's getting harder and harder to think of software which it would be unacceptable for Microsoft to bundle with its OSs. As with its misguided war on cookies, the EU is showing its blindness about technological issues.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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