Justice Dept. Won’t Pursue Google’s IE7 Browser Complaint

The U.S. Justice Department said it will not pursue complaints raised by Google over Microsoft’s decision to build search functionality into the new version of its Internet Explorer browser, a feature that could provide a boost to Microsoft’s MSN Search.

Antitrust regulators said they had looked into the search feature built into Internet Explorer 7 and determined that because users have the ability to change the default settings, the complaints do not warrant further exploration.

Familiar Bundles

Google has been a vocal critic of IE7 for several weeks now, saying the default setting, which sends users to MSN Search in many cases, is just another example of the type of bundling into the operating system that got Microsoft into antitrust hot water in the first place. IE7 is now circulating in beta form and will be built into Windows Vista when it is released next year.

The DoJ’s decision was not formally announced but was included as part of court documents relating to the ongoing monitoring of Microsoft’s antitrust settlement compliance.

Google has said it discussed its concerns about IE7 search-related issues with both the U.S. Justice Department and the European Commission, though it stopped short of filing a formal complaint in either venue.

For its part, the DoJ said the fact that both PC makers and end users can modify the search function to default to the search engine of their choice removes any basis for antitrust complaints.

“Internet Explorer 7 includes a relatively straightforward method for the user to select a different search engine,” regulators said in the court filing. “As Microsoft’s implementation of the search feature respects users’ and original equipment manufacturers’ default choices and is easily changed, plaintiffs have concluded their work on this matter.”

Search in a Box

The filing related to IE7 comes as U.S. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly prepares to oversee a hearing on Wednesday aimed at judging how well Microsoft is complying with the antitrust settlement Microsoft reached with the DoJ and various states in November of 2002.

Regulators are seeking to extend key parts of the judge’s original antitrust ruling for another two years, extending the original deadline to November of 2009. Microsoft has already agreed to the extension, which will give the software maker more time to supply technical documentation and other evidence that it is in full compliance with the original decree.

Google still has the option of pursuing a private antitrust complaint against Microsoft, but has given no indication it would do so.

At issue is a search box built into the new version of the browser, which enables users to search without opening a search engine directly in a browser. The function is already widely available as a plug-in for existing browsers. For instance, the Google toolbar will modify Firefox and other browsers to enable Google or other search engines to be accessed in a single click.

Pity for Google?

Google’s case is not strengthened by the fact that it remains the dominant search player, with nearly 50 percent of the total search market compared to 11 percent for MSN Search, Enderle Group Principal Analyst Rob Enderle said.

Indeed, one of the reasons the Netscape browser situation became a foundation for the Justice Department’s original bundling case against Microsoft was the precipitous drop in market share that company had already seen by the time the government took the case.

“It’s a lot harder to argue that you’re going to be run over by a competitor when you are already the dominant player in that space,” Enderle commented.

Google has argued that changing the default search engine is not a simple process, requiring more than the single-click that users can employ to change default search sites in the Firefox browsers that Google distributes — and which have Google set as the default choice for Web search.

The fact that Google raised the issues with Justice in the first place serves as a reminder that Google may be just as worried about Microsoft as Microsoft is about Google, search engine marketing expert John Battelle said.

He added that giving PC makers the ability to change the search engine default setting could create another front in the search wars, with search engines working on partnerships with the Dells and HPs of the world to convince them to ship machines with the search box set to direct users to their site.

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