29 November 2002 IT companies reacted angrily to the news yesterday that a senior Brussels official who is thought to have worked on the antitrust investigation of Microsoft has been hired by the US software giant.
Detlef Eckert, a central figure within the European Union’s information society department, has been granted leave of absence to join a team developing security products at Microsoft’s Belgium offices. The German national takes up his new post on 2 December 2002 and is expected to stay with the company for at least six months.
The role, if any, that Eckert played in Europe’s case against Microsoft is unclear. “He did not work on the case. It is handled by the competition department,” said a spokesman for the European Commission (EC). The appointment was cleared by Fabio Colasanti, the head of the EC’s information society department, he added.
But Brussels sources say Eckert helped to gather background material for the case and was shown the EC’s statement of objections later in 2001.
The revelations stunned Microsoft’s rivals. Ed Black, the chairman of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, an IT industry group that represents some of Microsoft’s fiercest competitors, including Sun Microsystems, said he had a meeting with Eckert in 2001 to discuss the antitrust case and was left with the impression that he had found an ally.
“Frankly he was very knowledgeable and supportive of our point of view,” Black told the BBC. “He understood the harm that Microsoft was causing and was very sympathetic to our cause.”
Asked why Microsoft had hired Eckert, given the official’s apparent support of the case against them, Black replied: “Well he was a very articulate supporter of the case against Microsoft so getting him out of there is probably not a bad idea.”
Microsoft, for its part, dismissed any suggestion of a conflict of interest on Eckert’s part. “He won’t be involved in any legal or antitrust issues in any form,” it said, adding that Eckert was bound by an EU confidentiality clause.
Eckert’s defection comes at a particularly sensitive time in the long-running case, with the EC expected to deliver its verdict in the next few weeks. The EC has the power to impose fines of up to 10% of a guilty company’s annual sales – a potential penalty of $2.5 billion in Microsoft’s case.
The EC is investigating whether Microsoft made its Windows operating system incompatible with rivals’ software products to squeeze them out of the market. It is also studying whether Microsoft’s Passport authentication strategy breaches European data protection laws.
Earlier this month, Microsoft escaped heavy punishment in the US when a federal judge upheld a settlement between the company and the Justice Department.