The department has asked a federal court to hold Microsoft in contempt of the consent decree. If Microsoft is found guilty but continues to violate the order, the department wants the court to impose a fine of $1 million a day. Imposition of a fine--or even a guilty verdict--is at the discretion of U.S. District Judge Thomas Jackson in Washington, D.C.
Microsoft has 11 days to respond to the charges, at which point Jackson will take both sides' arguments under consideration.
Attorney General Janet Reno and Joel Klein, head of the Justice Department's antitrust division, alleged that Microsoft requires PC manufacturers to distribute its Internet Explorer browser in order to get a license for its Windows 95 operating system.
"Microsoft is unlawfully taking advantage of its Windows monopoly to protect and extend that monopoly and undermine consumer choice," Reno said in a prepared statement this morning.
Consumer activists who have been pressuring the government to take action against Microsoft were pleased with today's announcement, while industry analysts were more skeptical.
DOJ antitrust chief Joel Klein on cost to PC makers and consumers
"We are operating in a completely lawful manner," said William Neukom, Microsoft senior vice president for law and corporate affairs. "The consent decree explicitly states that Microsoft may integrate new features into the operating system that it licenses to PC manufacturers without violating the decree. All software vendors are entitled to improve their products and to do so rapidly."
Federal regulators apparently think otherwise. "Microsoft has a different view of the consent decree," Klein said. "Everybody knows [the browser and the operating system] are two separate products."
Another official within the antitrust division said that, based on Microsoft's marketing techniques and emphasis on browser market share, the company has conducted business as if the two products were separate.
"Their whole set of commercial conduct says so," said the official, who asked not to be named. "This is not just like putting Paintbrush in the operating system."
Specifically, the Justice Department charged Microsoft with violating a court-ordered consent decree it signed in 1995 that prevents the company from tying the shipment of its software applications to the licensing of Windows. The department claims that Microsoft is shutting out other browsers by forcing PC makers to ship Internet Explorer with their Windows-based machines.
Klein on Microsoft fine
To make the charges stick, Justice must prove that the operating system and the browser are two separate products.
Microsoft is trying to integrate the browser into its operating system, a move that effectively would make it just another component of the operating system. Microsoft's Neukom said such integration--the built-in ability to find data on the Web--is simply the next "incremental and logical step" in enhancing Windows, which also allows users to locate data on a hard drive, floppy drive, CD-ROM, and network server.
"Microsoft has always included ways in its operating system to locate information from different sources," he said during a conference call this afternoon.
Windows 98 and NT 5.0, both due next year, are supposed to have complete browser integration. When asked about the integration factor, Klein said only that Windows 98 was a "work in progress" and that his team was "aware of the issues."
"At this point we don't see this petition as having an effect on the makeup of Windows 98," Neukom said. "We hope we won't have to face the day where we have to break up the logical components of functionality of the operating system."
Microsoft senior VP William Neukom answers charges
"It seems like this action is intended to prohibit that," said Sam Miller of the the law firm Folger, Levin, & Kahn in San Francisco. Miller was the department's lead counsel in its original Microsoft antitrust investigation in 1994.
Klein made it clear that today's charges will not impede other investigations of Microsoft's businesses, including the company's recent purchase of and investment in several streaming media companies.
The Justice Department petition asks the court to take the following actions:
To stop Microsoft from forcing original equipment manufacturers, or OEMs, to ship IE as a condition of licensing Windows 95.
To impose a daily $1 million fine if Microsoft does not comply with the consent decree, an amount that Klein called "unprecedented" for the Justice Department.
To require Microsoft to tell PC users that IE is not the only browser option with Windows 95 and to give them "simple instructions" how to remove IE from their desktops.
To disallow parts of nondisclosure agreements, or NDAs, that Microsoft's business partners are required to sign. Justice is concerned that the agreements prevent OEMs and other Windows licensees from disclosing information to government investigators or that the agreements force signees to notify Microsoft before approaching the government.
Microsoft has told the department that it won't deter its partners from complying with investigations, but today's petition seeks to "clear the air," according to Klein. "We won't allow anyone to interfere with people's right to give information to their government," he said.