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Today 10 years ago: behind the scenes of the Commission’s (first) Microsoft decision

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Ten years ago today, on 24 March 2004, the European Commission adopted its landmark Microsoft decision.

Whether one likes it or not, the 2004 Microsoft decision is arguably the most prominent decision ever adopted by the Commission; it contributed to place DG Comp at the forefront of worldwide competition enforcement, particularly in IT markets.It also started a series of Microsoft’s contributions to the EU Budget (see here for our suggestions on what could be done with the 2 billion Microsoft has paid in fines over recent year ;) ). In many ways, it marked a turning point in EU competition enforcement.

Some of you may not remember that in the days prior to the decision it all seemed like the Commission and Microsoft would strike a deal. Microsoft’s Ballmer (whose birthday is also today) flew to Brussels probably with the expectation of an amicable hand shake with the then Commissioner Mario Monti. But negotiations derailed…

The whole, very detailed and must-read account of what happened in those days was published in the Financial Times in 2006, in the days prior to the Court hearings in Luxembourg. Tobias Buck wrote a great series of two articles in which he describes the sequence of events in quite some detail and in a novelesque manner.

As any good narration, it contains an interesting character depiction of the main actors of the story, including Mario Monti (“an ascetic man who spoke with professorial precision and never departed from his written brief“), Steve Ballmer (“a ruddy-complexioned, beefy-handed extrovert known for having the loudest voice in any room he occupied and possessor of an enthusiasm and self-belief that tended to drive all before it“), Brad Smith (Msft’s General Counsel, “a cheerful 48-year-old who graduated summa cum laude from  Princeton [who was] described by a Commission official as  the archetypal “problem solver”), Cecilio Madero (now Deputy Director General at Comp, but back then the Head of Unit leading the charge in the case, whose “energy inspired the team of young officials working under him“), Philip Lowe (“a wiry Briton with a penchant for German poetry” who was “keen to be involved” and who took a more “flexible and creative approach“; he just retired a few months ago) and the “three officials – none of them much older than 30 when they started on the case, that formed the core of the investigating team“: Jean Huby (“a young Frenchman  whose quick mind and aggressive style in turn impressed and infuriated the  Microsoft team“, who “had the habit of organising 2am  conference calls” and who went on to be CEO at Areva Wind, now at MAKE), Oliver Sitar (“who left the team after Mr Monti’s decision for a spell at a New York film school” and who later retuned to the Commission and now deals with other issues) and Nick Banasevic (“a soft-spoken British economist who joined from the Commission’s  foreign affairs directorate and is the only one still working on the case”; the “still” in that phrase was written 8 years ago, but Nick is currently the Head of Unit in charge of internet and consumer electronics, and, in many ways, is “still” working on the case and on its ramifications.

For the complete FT behind the scenes story, click here (Part I: How Microsoft and Brussels Squared Up) and here (Part II: When Microsoft and Brussels went separate ways).

For a list of other anniversaries, check AP’s Today in History

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Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

24 March 2014 at 1:18 pm

Supermarket power

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Some of the tastiest issues in current competition law arise in the food sector. In fact, as you’ll see in a second, some of those issues are the same ones that we often face in other dynamic two-sided markets that generally attract more public attention.

At Chillin’Competition we’ve always paid our fair share of attention to food distribution and groceries (in fact our first posts on endives still ranks among out most read ever  (actually, when you search for Chilling Competition on Google the word endives appears immediately in the autocomplete box, which may seem a bit odd). Today, we’re happy to include a “sponsored link” to the work done on this subject by a good friend of ours.

Javier Berasategi (former lawyer at Stanbrook in Brussels, former President of the Basque Competition Authority –yes, there is one-, surfer, runner, alpinist and overall a quite unique guy now running a solo legal practice) has authored an also quite unique work on supermarket power. As always, it’s original, thought provoking and perhaps a bit controversial.

But regardless of whether one agrees or not with the analysis and the suggestions in it, its approach is certainly interesting; here’s the abstract:

“This paper analyses the sources of supermarket power vis-à-vis shoppers and independent brands. This power transforms leading supermarkets into vertically-integrated competitive bottlenecks that are able to restrict competition between brands (including their own ones) and reduce consumer welfare. However, competition enforcement has failed to address their bottleneck role and the negative consequences of their practices on dynamic competition (i.e., a market where the competitive process fosters innovation, quality and variety), the ultimate goal of competition policy. This paper proposes complementary regulatory and competition remedies to ensure that access to supermarket platforms and competition within them promotes fair dealing, consumer welfare and economic growth. It draws inspiration from the remedies enforced in other competitive bottlenecks such as CRSs, mobile communication networks, internet service providers, internet search engines and credit card networks”.

[It's interesting that the paper brings together groceries and tech stuff, particularly following Nicolas Sarkozy's cautionary words about the perils of comparing endives to Apple (see here). Although, to be fair, Kevin Coates had done a similar link before with his "exploding banana hypothesis" (I'm saying this to force him to explain it on 21st Century Competition ...)].

The report, titled Supermarket Power: Serving Consumers or Harming Competition, is available here  Take a look, it’s only slightly above 350 pages.

Further work on this subject will also be made available through a new website: http://www.supermarketpower.eu/en/

P.S. The picture may be subject to copyright, but I deserve full credit for having found an image of a supermarket actually called power.

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

4 March 2014 at 5:47 pm

What makes a great lawyer?

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In the course of a conversation last weekend someone asked me about who I thought were the best competition lawyers in Brussels. Not that I’m going to share my thoughts on that here because it wouldn’t be elegant to use the blog for self-publicity ;)  it would be unfair as, aside from the subjectivity inherent to the reply, I’ve only been exposed to the work of a limited number of people. Our conversation then shifted to what is it that makes a great lawyer, and that’s something that I thought could make an interesting subject for a blog post (it’d been a while since we didn’t post random ruminations).

 

To be sure, there’s no perfect lawyer for all situations, areas of practice and clients, but in any event the ideal recipe should probably incorporate a balanced doses of multiple ingredients, most of which aren’t taught, or at least not at law schools, and often not even at most law firms:

 

Typical (bad) legal education mainly centers on developing and evaluating brain power. In my own country as well as in other continental systems this too often means plain memory. In anglosaxon systems (and to some extent in the German system too, or so I’m told) logic, analysis and writing receive more attention. And once you’re out of university some people will measure how of a good lawyer you are internally in terms of billable hours (we’ve already dealt with that at length before), and externally in terms of which firm employs you and your hourly rate (in my experience very imperfect proxies too).

 

But, in reality, there are a wide array of intangible abilities or skills that are extremely hard to assess and even to perceive, but that, fortunately, can be developed and that are, in my view, what make the difference. I refer to things like empathy, integrity, creativeness, common sense, communication and people skills, diligence and responsibility, perfectionism, the ability to question everything starting with oneself, availability, hunger/ambition (to learn and to improve), commitment (often confused with the belief that success deserves absurd sacrifices), marketing and selling, loyalty, reliability, curiosity, passion, experience, good judgment,  ability to prioritize (which has always made me distrust advice from lawyers who seem not to get priorities in their own life straight; or maybe I’m the erred one??), attention to detail, the ability not to lose the forest for the trees, having a practical business-oriented mind, being motivational and fair to colleagues, calmness, prudency, confidence (in your ability to improve, not the false security of thinking you already master everything), and I’m sure I’m forgetting many others.

 

Of course, there are many people that make partner at BigLaw firms without many of these, in which case some will consider that they are “successful”, “rich” and “hence” great lawyers. I would disagree because, lawyering being a service, excellent lawyering should be measured by its impact on others, not on the lawyer.

 

As I said earlier, to me, the ideal probably lies in a right combination of the skills outlined above, or perhaps in their relentless pursuit. But if I had to choose the single most important ability to have in a lawyer, I’d say the ability to understand people.

 

By people I mean clients, colleagues, decision-makers (judges, authorities, etc), opponents as well as the processes and interactions within and among them. And by understanding I mean trying to work inside their mind to know or guess -sometimes even to help them know or guess- what they want, what moves them and how they are likely to move and be moved. Knowing the law will provide you with a basic knowledge of the common framework you all move in, but then you need a lot of listening and a bit of intuition.

 

The above is only my Saturday morning take at a question without an answer, and, frankly, it’s highly unlikley that an ultra-specialized 30 year old lawyer who chose EU competition law for a career will get it right… So, it’s your turn: what is it that makes a great lawyer?

P.S. Pictured above is Atticus Finch, the legal hero from To Kill a Mockingbird, who recurrently tops up every list of fictional lawyers. His domination is so uncontestable that the ABA had to come up with this list of  The 25 Greatest Fictional Lawyers (Who Are Not Atticus Finch)

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

3 March 2014 at 1:00 pm

On information requests and their limits

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The latest entry in 21st Century Competition (Kevin Coates’ very good blog; btw, pictured above is a capture of his work keyboard) explains that the Commission has improved its habits regarding information requests and that there may still be some margin for further improvement.

Kevin’s views are, as always, sensible and well explained [he also has good taste for recommending other people's writings; see here in relation to the ongoing Android investigation]. They also bring a thought to mind: is self-restraint the only limitation -other than the general principle of proportionality- that the Commission faces in relation to its powers to gather information?

Together with my colleagues Luis Ortiz and Napoleón Ruiz (no kiddin’) I am arguing in a case that is currently pending before the General Court (T-296/11) that this shouldn’t be the case [btw, I'm not disclosing anything not public given that an interim measures order was already published].

Article 18 of Regulation 1/2003 provides that the Commission may require undertakings “to provide all necessary information“. In our view, however, this provision should not be interpreted as granting the Commission absolute discretion.

If our interpretation is correct and the Commission does not enjoy carte blanche in this regard, then the criterion of necessity in Article 18 should be interpreted in an objective manner; otherwise it would be rendered meaningless, with the ensuing risk of fishing investigations. We posit that the objective element of reference could only be given by the indications of the existence of an infringement that are already in the Commission’s power, and not just by reference to the subject-matter and purpose of the investigation. The recent and most interesting Prysmian and Nexans Judgments (in relation to inspections) would seem to lend support to this idea.

This interesting question, however, won’t remain open for long. The General Court is set to deliver its Judgments on a few parallel cases on 14 March (with the exception of ours, which had a very interesting post-hearing procedural peculiarity on which I can’t yet comment). We’ll provide you with our views on these Judgments as soon as they’re out.

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

6 February 2014 at 6:48 pm

An announcement and a nomination

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bestes jurablog 2014 sonderpreis ausland

The announcement:  On 15 February my co-blogger Monsieur le Professeur Nicolas Laurent Max Petit (no kiddin’) will be joining DG COMP for a 6-month stint.  I’m curious as to how this experience will impact his views on the Europen Commission’s work.

Btw, Nico took care of the inaugural lecture at the IEB course in Madrid on Friday and did a great job. Tomorrow he’ll be delivering a must-attend presentation on Art. 102 at Les Mardis de la Concurrence in Brussels (the PPP will be made available here).

The nomination: Chillin’Competition has been nominated as one of the best foreign legal blogs in a competition ran by our favorite German site (Kartellblog) (as if we were able to read German…). Thanks to Johannes Zöttle and to whovever nominated us. Since it’s always nice to win something (or so I’m told  ;) ) you can vote for us here: http://kartellblog.de/2014/01/06/poll-beste-jurablogs-2014/

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

13 January 2014 at 9:09 pm

Pomposity v Social Value in Legal (and Antitrust) Scholarship

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I just saw this graph on Prof. Einer Elhauge’s LinkedIn account; the original source is Eric Posner’s blog (yes, the son of Richard Posner and a big name in his own right too).

I’d be curious to know about the underlying methodology (economic analysis seems to favor economy-related disciplines). It would seem as if an antitrust legal scholar had asked an economist to come up with a seemingly scientific study corroborating a given thesis. Not that this would ever happen in private practice…  :)

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

9 January 2014 at 1:12 pm

Antitrust tidbits

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- On Friday Brazil’s CADE announced that it’s also investigating Google pursuant to a complaint filed by Microsoft (see here). The investigation appears to address the very same practices previously investigated by the FTC and DG Comp, on which we’ve already commented ad nauseam. I may reduce my coverage of all Google-related issues (despite the attention we’ve paid to that case in recent times, there’s world beyond that in antitrust), but given that my firm is finally! currently betting big in Latin America (see here), I’ll now be spending more time looking at competition law developments over there, and possibly commenting on them here. Btw, if you’re interested, there is a very good blog on competition law in Latin America.

- Some of you may have wondered about how the Federal Government shutdown in the States is affecting antitrust enforcement. If that’s the case, here are the contingency plans set up by the DOJ and the FTC.  On a non-antitrust related note, I’d strongly recommend you to check out Jon Stewart’s hilarious coverage of the shutdown:  Rockin’ Shutdown Eve

- Headhunting season remains open in the Brussels legal market, with David Hull also leaving Covington (third partner to leave in recent weeks following Lars Kjolbye and G.Berrisch) to join VanBael & Bellis.  Speaking of headhunting, for some interesting thorughts on the Brussels recruiting world, check out Steve Meier’s blog.

- A friend sent me this piece from abovethelaw.com on 10 Reasons to Leave BigLaw. Don’t think that a good part of what it says applies to everyone, but it’s always good to measure your choices against a contrarian -even if arguably exaggerated- view.

- Certainly the most relevant thing that happened in the antitrust field in the past few days (or maybe not) was my presentation about Interoperability in the payments industry last Thursday in Brussels :)  Here’s my presentation: Interop_Payments_Lamadrid (only makes sense if you click on slideshow).

Until I was invited to do this I’d frankly never paid much atention to the much-hyped mobile payment fever, but have now discovered a most interesting area. As I explained at the conference, if smartphones and payments have received so much antitrust scrutiny on their own, their marriage will be something like an antitrust lawyers’Nirvana!

The sector shares all the interesting features of high tech (multi-layered, multi-sided, strong network effects, rapid evolution, etc.) but has the peculiarity to feature both strong incumbents and stong entrants (traditional payment service providers, mobile network operators, tech companies…), all of which enjoy some degree of market power that they’re trying to leverage. The business strategy aspects of it are most interesting: everyone is setting up alliances (often with natural competitors), often betting on multiple horses, and at the same time acting unilaterally not to renounce the opportunity to reign the market (hence the Game of thrones slide). At the same time, we’re told that all players will end up holding hands and competing happily in an interoperable candyland where consumers’ life will be made easy and pleasant (hence the following slide). My bet is that on that road a number of interesting competition issues will arise, notably concerning access to the “secure element” (which is the key to the provision of m-payment services).

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

12 October 2013 at 5:17 pm

Must reads

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I’ve been rather inactive here in the past few days due to work-related obligations, and my sense of guilt has been increased by the merits of other competition law bloggers:

- In the past few days the main media outlets in Spain have echoed a controversy related to creation of the new competition authority (see here and here for my take on the reform; btw, the new competition watchdog is operative since yesterday) that has unfortunately culminated in the stepping down of a very able Director of Investigation. A voice that has resonated very specially has been that of a fellow-blogger (and frequent commentator on this blog), Jesús Alfaro. You may or may not agree with everything or anything of what Jesús says, but you certainly won’t read anything as bold and fearless as his blog post and his article on the subject (in Spanish though). Only for that it deserves that we bring it to your attention. See here and here.

- On another front, one of the most worthy people I’ve come to meet thanks to this blog has started his own: http://www.twentyfirstcenturycompetition.com/  (not saying the authors’ name to force you to satisfy your curiosity by clicking the link…). Congrats to him (and compliments to DG Comp for having authorized him to do it). We’ll try to maximize cross-fertilization of ideas (and possibly charge an interchange fee, given that, according to basic economics, the ideas in Chillin’Competition -needless in a haystack- should be more valuable due to their scarcity) :)

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

8 October 2013 at 5:44 pm

April Fools Day hoax triggers a DG Comp request for information (no kidding)

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On April 1st 2013 a Belgian website (Pagtour.net) published the news that there was a project to expand Charleroi’s airport with a second runway (see here).

The piece explained that secret plans to expand the airport had been found in a secret chest, and that they had been drawn up by a secret Commission whose members only drank Spa water and met at restaurants specialized in fish and zinc. It was -some would say obviously- an April’s fools day hoax (or, as they’re called here, a “poisson d’avril” (April’s fish).

However, as reported in a bunch of Belgian news outlets (see l’Echole Soir, la RTBFmsn actualité 7sur7, la DH, le Morgen, RTL, La libre,) DG COMP apparently swallowed the fish whole (!!)

Belgian authotities are reported to have received a request for information dated on 31 July (just like April’s fools hoaxes are done on April 1, the EC’s jokes information requests in the EU are sent out on 31 July to spoil some poor lawyers’ and company employees’ vacations..) asking about the reported plans , and referring to the hoax piece at issue as a source  :)

The Commission is reported to have stated today that information requests are supposed to be of a confidential nature.

Many of you may not know that there’s actually (or, rather, there was until 2011; pity) an established tradition of antitrust-related April Fools Day jokes published by the American Antitrust Institute. They’re all available here, my favorite ones being:

- Antitrust Controlled by Jerks, Says New Evolutionary Biology Report  (I bought that one; thought it made a lot of sense..)

and

- As US Attorney General Gonzales Confidentially Reports, There’s Nothing Funny About Antitrust

By the way, what has happened with the joke on Charlerois is not a first; some journalists in the States also picked up the AAI hoax on President Bush’s proposal to merge antitrust agencies with the Department for Homeland Security..

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

19 August 2013 at 7:36 pm

Is associate lawyer the unhappiest job?

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Looking at my Facebook newsfeed last night I saw that a friend (well, a Facebook friend, you know) had posted a story on how, according to a Forbes’ story, associate attorney is the No. 1 in a list of unhappiest jobs. Legal assistant ranks 7th.

This is quite troublesome, for it means that a great chunk of our readers are unhappy. I could have figured it out; who else would want to read half-serious competition law blogs??  [a suggestion to GoogleAds; it would be smart to place ads for anti-depressant pills on Chillin'Competition]

The list of happiest and unhappiest jobs has been compiled by a jobs website called CareerBliss, which has based it on reviews completed by more than 65,000 employees, accounting for factors such as life-work balance, work environment, compensation, growth opportunities, company culture and control over daily work. According to this site, a great deal of associates’s unhappiness is due to billable hour pressure, as well as to prevalent up or out policies.

Those who attribute this reported unhappiness to billable-hour pressure may find their ideas vindicated in a most interesting and provocative New York Times’ op-ed on The Tyranny of the Billable Hour published last week. At one point it refers to lawyers who ended up in jail for billing fictictous hours, which reminded me of a joke you might’ve heard:

- A prominent lawyer suddenly dies and arrives at the Gates of Heaven. When St. Peter greets him the lawyer protests that his untimely death had to be some sort of mistake: “I’m much too young to die! I’m only 35!”. St. Peter agrees that 35 seems to be a bit young to be entering the pearly gates, and agrees to check on his case. When St. Peter returned, he tells the attorney, “I’m afraid that the mistake must be yours, my son. We verified your age on the basis of the number of hours you’ve billed to your clients, and you’re at least 108.! “.   :)

I believe I might have gone a bit off topic… Coming back to the issue of unhappiness, you may remember that in the past we’ve devoted some attention to this issue. See, e.g. my random thoughts on life at law firms, Nico’s I love my job and my reply in Re: I love my job, or the more recent Where to work in Brussels?

You know my take. We’re privileged. If I compare what we do with what other people outside our circle do, well, we don’t have much reason to complain. One of my best friends in the competition law world used to work, among many others, at suspect identification parades in England (Mark, you don’t mind me writing this, right?) and I bet that he likes it better now (do you?) ;)

But the fact remains that there’s a problem, that many associates are unhappy doing what is and should be a most interesting job, and that many things could be done better,  so we’d like to pose you a question: what do you think is the problem, and how do you think it could be fixed?

 

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

3 April 2013 at 12:35 am

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