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But the order itself is desperately out of date.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.

Grant Shapps on the campaign trail. Photo: Getty
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Grant Shapps resigns over Tory youth wing bullying scandal

The minister, formerly party chairman, has resigned over allegations of bullying and blackmail made against a Tory activist. 

Grant Shapps, who was a key figure in the Tory general election campaign, has resigned following allegations about a bullying scandal among Conservative activists.

Shapps was formerly party chairman, but was demoted to international development minister after May. His formal statement is expected shortly.

The resignation follows lurid claims about bullying and blackmail among Tory activists. One, Mark Clarke, has been accused of putting pressure on a fellow activist who complained about his behaviour to withdraw the allegation. The complainant, Elliot Johnson, later killed himself.

The junior Treasury minister Robert Halfon also revealed that he had an affair with a young activist after being warned that Clarke planned to blackmail him over the relationship. Former Tory chair Sayeedi Warsi says that she was targeted by Clarke on Twitter, where he tried to portray her as an anti-semite. 

Shapps appointed Mark Clarke to run RoadTrip 2015, where young Tory activists toured key marginals on a bus before the general election. 

Today, the Guardian published an emotional interview with the parents of 21-year-old Elliot Johnson, the activist who killed himself, in which they called for Shapps to consider his position. Ray Johnson also spoke to BBC's Newsnight:


The Johnson family claimed that Shapps and co-chair Andrew Feldman had failed to act on complaints made against Clarke. Feldman says he did not hear of the bullying claims until August. 

Asked about the case at a conference in Malta, David Cameron pointedly refused to offer Shapps his full backing, saying a statement would be released. “I think it is important that on the tragic case that took place that the coroner’s inquiry is allowed to proceed properly," he added. “I feel deeply for his parents, It is an appalling loss to suffer and that is why it is so important there is a proper coroner’s inquiry. In terms of what the Conservative party should do, there should be and there is a proper inquiry that asks all the questions as people come forward. That will take place. It is a tragic loss of a talented young life and it is not something any parent should go through and I feel for them deeply.” 

Mark Clarke denies any wrongdoing.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.