Microsoft under Chinese Antitrust Scrutiny?

Yesterday, July 28, the Western press, including the Washington Post and South China Morning Post, as well as Chinese online media reported that the State Administration for Industry and Commerce (SAIC), one of China’s three antitrust regulators, was investigating Microsoft for possible antitrust violations by visiting Microsoft’s offices at Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chengdu.

Chinese IT analysts suggested that if there were an antitrust investigation, it would involve Microsoft’s operating system, which controls 95% of the market.   However, analysts also noted that while PC OS has not been a principal focus of attention of China’s antitrust regulators, China has potentially eight domestic competitors to Microsoft in the OS sphere, and that there market share has been growing in part through government procurement efforts. While OS is a basic platform for building computer systems and services, these analysts noted Microsoft’s technological depth in this area has brought it many competitive advantages.

One hopes that Chinese regulators note that the 95% “market” dominance figure that is being discussed necessarily refers to the legitimate, non-pirated market only since Microsoft’s chief competitor in China is likely the stolen pirated versions of its own software.

The limited news that is available makes it difficult to infer much. SAIC handles non-pricing related investigations involving monopolistic agreements, and abuse of dominance. In recent months, however, NDRC has undertaken several price-related antitrust investigations. SAIC is a vast agency which also has broad authority in a range of IP and market regulation areas, including “abuse of IP” pursuant to article 55 of China’s Antimonopoly Law as well as supervisory authority under China’s contract law.

History also offers little guidance, in part because of Microsoft’s extensive involvement in a range of tech sectors. A Hong Kong based company reportedly accused Microsoft of discriminatory and excessive pricing for its software products in 2012 in a case in Guangdong. .” On a positive note, however, Microsoft’s merger with Nokia was also recently approved by China’s antitrust regulators

China does appear to be more clearly expanding its efforts to regulate technology markets.   These efforts began even when there was an unclear legislative basis. The press had reported that Microsoft had been reported to be the subject of an antitrust investigation by SIPO in 1998, which thereafter led nowhere except to a flurry of denials. In fact, as I noted in the 2011 book I coauthored on Antimonpoly Law and Practice in China, MofCOM Vice Minister Yi Xiaozhun complained even before implementation of the antimonopoly law (2007) of high licensing fees “running counter to fair competition”. More recently,the Huawei/Interdigital case appears to have been a harbinger of a more active role by the government, particularly NDRC, in regulation of foreign players in China’s technology markets.

We noted in the 2011 book that there are likely be “increasing concerns regarding policies that appear oriented towards enhancing national competitiveness rather than competition per se. These concerns over an emerging Chinese “techno-nationalism” have been escalating with increasing frequency.” At the same time, I also expressed hope that “China’s emergence as a major center of innovative intellectual property activity may alter policies that appear to diminish the value of foreign IP rights and may also temper rhetoric that is occasionally heard of using competition law and other policies as ‘counter strategies’ to Western ‘IP oppression.’”  More recently, these themes were echoed at the recently concluded Strategic and Economic Dialogue where China “recognized that the objective of competition policy is to promote consumer welfare and economic efficiency, rather than to promote individual competitors or industries, and that enforcement of its competition law should be fair, objective, transparent, and non-discriminatory. ”

These days at conferences no one seems to doubt that China is interested in IP protection. The “goods news” remains that China is interested in IP. Unfortunately, the bad news is also that China is interested in IP  —  as a tool of development for its “socialist market economy.” Striking the right balance will be a critical issue for both China and its trading partners in the years ahead.

The opinions expressed above are the author’s own.

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