New York antitrust suit accuses Intel of bribery

Intel used payments to keep computer makers from selling systems with AMD chips, according to New York's attorney general. It's a new front in an old Intel war.

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Stephen Shankland
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New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo filed a federal antitrust lawsuit Wednesday against Intel that accuses it of paying computer makers rebates to illegally maintain its monopoly power, the newest among several such attacks that have dogged the chipmaker in recent years.

"Intel has engaged in a systematic worldwide campaign of illegal, exclusionary conduct to maintain its monopoly power and prices in the market for x86 microprocessors," the suit asserts. "By exacting exclusive or near-exclusive agreements from large computer makers in exchange for payments totaling billions of dollars, and threatening retaliation against any company that did not heed its wishes, Intel robbed its competitors of the opportunity to challenge Intel's dominance in key segments of the market. This illegal behavior was highly detrimental to consumers, competition, and innovation."

The suit "seeks to bar further anticompetitive acts by Intel, restore lost competition, recover monetary damages suffered by New York governmental entities and consumers, and collect penalties," Cuomo said in a statement.

The suit (click for PDF) makes the state the newest party to go after the dominant chipmaker. Intel also is in the midst of an antitrust suit brought by top rival AMD in 2005 and appealing a massive $1.5 billion fine from the European Commission from a later case in the European Union.

Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo
New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo New York Office of the Attorney General

Intel will defend itself, Intel spokesman Chuck Mulloy said in response to the New York suit.

"We disagree with the New York attorney general. Neither consumers--who have consistently benefited from lower prices and increased innovation--nor justice are being served by the decision to file this case now," Mulloy said.

Of e-mails the attorney general quoted as evidence Intel abused its position, all already emerged in earlier cases, he added. "It is the AMD case filed 4.5 years ago. It's the same case the EU brought. There's nothing significant or new here that hasn't been discovered," Mulloy said.

According to the suit, computer makers "frequently decided, when faced with the array of incentives and threats which Intel brought to bear, to collaborate with Intel in restricting their purchases from AMD."

"In a February 27, 2003 internal Dell document, for example, it was assumed that 'aggressive' purchases by Dell from AMD could result in '(r)etaliatory (rebate) reductions (by Intel that) could be severe and prolonged with impact to all LOBs (lines of business),'" the suit said. "Another Dell document from March 2003 concluded that '(a)nticipated Intel response wipes out all potential opinc (operating income) upside from going with AMD.'"

And an unnamed IBM executive said in a 2005 e-mail that balancing business interests against Intel's response was hard. From the suit:

I understand the point about the accounts wanting a full AMD portfolio. The question is can we afford to accept the wrath of Intel if we do the AMD full portfolio? It is a very hard question to deal with. On the one hand, having Intel help us has been one element of why we are doing better in the market. If they start to sell against us again I am afraid that we would be in a very difficult spot. On the other hand, if we leave Sun and HP an opening with AMD we will (be) very exposed on that side of things.

Cuomo's office said it began investigating the case in January 2008, "reviewed millions of pages of documents and e-mails and took testimony from several dozen witnesses."

Updated 9:43 a.m. PST with further details from the lawsuit.