Microsoft Corp. won’t face a Federal Trade Commission antitrust probe, as the agency Tuesday rebuffed a request from a group of senators who said the Justice Department had gone soft in its long investigation of the computer giant.
FTC Chairman Robert Pitofsky, in a letter to four lawmakers, said an FTC probe “could involve a substantial duplication of effort as well as raise serious concerns about fairness to the targets and potential witnesses.”
The decision, though largely expected by antitrust lawyers, was a setback for Netscape Communications Corp. The Mountain View California-based software company earlier challenged the Justice Department to either reinvigorate its probe of Microsoft or turn matters over to the FTC.
Washington antitrust lawyer Joe Sims said Netscape was “pretty much at the end of the rope” in urging federal action against Microsoft, even though the Justice Department investigation is still open.
“To some extent, they are going to be perceived as the little boy who cried wolf because they make all these overwhelming accusations against Microsoft,” said Charles Rule, former head of the Justice Department’s antitrust division. “The Justice Department has been through enough investigation that they recognize there’s not much to these allegations.”
In 1994, the Justice Department negotiated a settlement over charges that Microsoft thwarted competition through its software licensing terms with computer manufacturers.
Since that time, Netscape has charged that Microsoft gives discounts on the Windows 95 operating systems to manufacturers who agree to feature Microsoft’s Internet browser on a computer set-up screen. Netscape has also complained that Microsoft is bundling some Internet browser and World Wide Web software with Microsoft’s dominant operating system products.
In June, Montana Republican Sen. Conrad Burns and other lawmakers asked the FTC to investigate the world’s largest personal computer software company. They cited concerns from computer manufacturers and others over whether Justice’s antitrust division is vigorously looking into complaints that Microsoft is violating the terms of the 1994 antitrust settlement.
The FTC and Justice Department share antitrust enforcement authority and almost always defer when the other has already begun an investigation.