As Google faces the EU we offer a chronology of mega cases against tech players.
Earlier this month the simmering quarrel between Google and the European Union boiled over yet again, as the European Commission reopened an antitrust case that has been running for four years.
The dispute hinges on the search engine’s alleged abuse of its dominant position in the market, with implications for advertising and the many other sectors that Google has expanded into. But this is not the first time tech has been called to meet a monopolies commission in Europe or America…
1) AT&T (1956 to 1982)
For decades the American Telephone and Telegraph company held a monopoly on phone services across the States through the Bell Telephone Company. Both firms had been established by Alexander Graham Bell, the foremost inventor of the telephone, and the network was tasked by the government with providing phone access to every household in the US.
But other companies decided they wanted greater access to the phone market, and better technology led many to question the efficiency of the Bell monopoly. Initial disputes over phone accessories and third-party equipment escalated, until a 1982 agreement broke the conglomerate into regional groups, the so-called "Baby Bells".
2) IBM (1969 to 1982)
While Microsoft’s antitrust case remains vivid in public memory, an equally notable action from the US government two decades previously set the stage for the fight over computing monopolies. During a 13-year case "Big Blue" was forced to fight for its life, as the Justice Department sought to break the company into smaller units.
IBM stood accused of monopolising the computer market, with some estimates claiming the firm had as much as a 70% share during the 1960s and 1970s. In the latter years almost 1,000 witnesses would be called and more than 100,000 pages of transcripts would be read, but the case was eventually thrown out, and the firm survived.
3) Microsoft (1993 to 2007)
Since the 1990s Microsoft has rarely been out of the headlines in connection with antitrust cases, with many of its rivals accusing it of uncompetitive practices. One of the first to do so was Novell, a software company which quibbled licensing that paid Microsoft royalties for all machines shipped by suppliers of the Windows OS, regardless of what software was installed.
Despite settling that case allegations kept coming, and court cases were brought on both sides of the Atlantic in the 2000s. While the US contended that the bundling of Internet Explorer with Windows was uncompetitive, European complaints would later focus on the inclusion of Windows Media Player, for similar reasons.
A early ruling from a US judge threatened to split up Microsoft, but a later agreement in 2001 merely forced the company to make its software more compatible with that of other developers. Likewise the European Commission would order the firm to release a version of Windows without the media player, slapping it with a $613m fine for good measure.
4) Intel (2005 to 2009)
Intel, one of the world’s foremost chipmakers, has been a serial attendee at monopoly hearings since its founding in 1968. Most famous among these was a complex quarrel between the firm and its rivals AMD during the last decade, with the multinational accused of "illegal threats, coercion, fines and bullying to preserve its stranglehold on the market", in a case that was eventually settled for $1.25bn in 2009.
Staggeringly this was not even the biggest fine Intel had received, having been smacked with a $1.45bn fine by the EU only six months previously for much the same crimes AMD had accused it of. This brought the total financial loss to $2.7bn, which may well be the most a single tech company has lost from related antitrust suits.
5) Apple (2012 to 2014)
Apple found itself in the dock alongside five major publishers in 2012 on allegations of e-book price fixing. The practice, alleged to have been arranged in plush Manhattan dining rooms between the companies’ chief executives, was thought to be a response to vicious price slashing by ecommerce giant Amazon, whose sales strategies have shaken the publishing industry to its foundations.
A class action lawsuit filed by almost three dozen US states sought damages of up to $840m from Apple and its cohort, claims vigorously contested by the firm. Even so, after a two year wrangle Apple would eventually agree to pay $450m, with the publishers agreeing to settle for a combined $166m beforehand.