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FTC wants Intel to mend its ways

In suing Intel, the FTC says it doesn't want monetary damages, but wants the chipmaker to behave and allow for a free market for competitors and consumers.

The FTC wants Intel to grow up and start acting like a responsible company.

At least that's the goal behind the agency's lawsuit against the chipmaker. Filed on Wednesday, the FTC's suit charges Intel with a host of offenses, including using threats and rewards to convince PC makers not to buy chips from the competition, altering its compiler to weaken the performance of rival chips like those made by AMD, and preserving its CPU monopoly by stifling the market for GPUs (graphics processing units) made by Nvidia and other manufacturers.

On Wednesday, the FTC held a press conference in Washington in which it discussed why it launched the lawsuit now and what it hopes to gain.

Fielding questions from reporters, Richard Feinstein, director of the FTC's Bureau of Competition, explained that the allegations against Intel have been bubbling for the past 10 years. During that time, at each point in which Intel perceived a threat to its dominance, the company responded not by competing aggressively on its own merits but by behaving in a way that was exclusionary and detrimental to the competition and ultimately detrimental to consumers, said the FTC.

Federal officials said they chose now to file the suit in part because the allegations have continued and evolved over time, and also because many of the charges are fairly recent, such as Intel's perceived attacks on the GPU market.

Unlike other complainants against Intel, the FTC is not imposing any fines or financial penalties. Instead, the agency simply wants the company to try a little behavior modification. The government said it is looking for changes in Intel's conduct to help restore market competition.

In its complaint, the FTC provided a laundry list of remedies that it plans to impose on Intel if the company is found to have violated any laws.

The full list of 26 different dos and don'ts can be found in the FTC's complaint, but to name just a few:

  • Intel can't directly or indirectly require customers to purchase only its CPUs or GPUs.
  • Intel can't require a customer to buy a minimum or fixed number of processors from Intel.
  • Intel can't withhold payments or other compensation to OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) just because the companies are not exclusively doing business with Intel.
  • Intel can't directly price its processors so its customers pay below cost just to thwart the competition.
  • Intel can't make hardware or software designed to inhibit processors made by competing companies.
  • For customers who bought "defective" compilers, Intel must provide them with a working compiler at no cost and compensate them for the cost of recompiling their software using the new compiler.
  • Intel can't coerce benchmarking organizations to adopt benchmarks that are deceptive or misleading.
  • Intel must file periodic compliance reports with the FTC and for a period of time make available any advertisements, tests, reports, studies, and other documents that relate to the charges against it.

In charging Intel, Feinstein said that the FTC is relying on principles from Section 2 of the Sherman Act, which deals with monopolies, and Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, which covers deceptive or anticompetitive actions that affect consumers.

Section 5 also specifies that the outcome of the FTC's case can't be used to establish liability on Intel's part in any other antitrust actions. That may work in Intel's favor as its lawyers have certainly been putting in overtime dealing with the barrage of lawsuits against the company.

Intel recently closed the books on a 2004 antitrust lawsuit filed against it by AMD. As part of the settlement, the company agreed to pay its rival chipmaker $1.25 billion and promised to refrain from offering incentives to customers to keep them from doing business with AMD.

Intel is still appealing the record $1.45 billion fine imposed on it in May by the European Commission after the company was found guilty of violating European antitrust laws.

And in November, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo filed a federal lawsuit against Intel, accusing it of paying off computer makers like Dell with rebates to retain its monopoly and shove AMD out of the marketplace. Though this case is separate and distinct from the FTC's suit, Feinstein did acknowledge that he spoke to and compared notes with the state attorney general.

With Intel already facing severe financial penalties from these other lawsuits, Feinstein said he didn't feel another fine was essential for the FTC's case. But he said that in theory the FTC can go into federal court and seek financial penalties if necessary.

Last-minute allegations
In response to the FTC's action, Intel held its own conference call Wednesday in which the company discussed the allegations in greater detail..

Intel spokesperson Chuck Mulloy told CNET that substantial common ground had been reached in the discussions between the company and the FTC, especially after Intel settled its suit with AMD. But negotiations broke down because the commission raised certain last-minute allegations, such as the benchmarking issue and the GPU matter, and because Intel felt some of the suggested remedies were over the top.

Mulloy said that the benchmarking and GPU concerns had never been addressed in the two years that the FTC had been investigating Intel, both formally and informally, and were added a few weeks prior to the lawsuit being filed. He said the commission issued a subpoena to Intel requesting information on the GPU issue on December 8, about a week before the suit was launched, and did not wait for a response from Intel.

The chipmaker was also unhappy with a couple of the remedies proposed by the FTC. One sticking point in particular was the notion of compulsory licensing, in which the commission would have required Intel to license its x86 architecture to other companies, which includes those trying to make their own chips compatible with Intel processors. But Intel objected because it considers the technology to be its own intellectual property worth tens of billions of dollars.

Mulloy also said that talks broke down because Intel felt the FTC was trying to micromanage the company's pricing schemes--dictating how and under what circumstances it could offer discounts to certain customers. He added that Intel did make some proposals to the commission on discounting schemes, but this issue was never resolved.

Intel's view is that this is overreach on the part of the FTC, said Mulloy. He feels Intel was on track to settle and was disappointed that it couldn't get it done.

To move the case along quickly, the FTC decided to have it heard before an administrative judge rather than a slower federal court. The speedier process of the administrative court will begin with a trial in September, which Feinstein believes will conclude by the end of the year. Depending on the outcome, there may or may not be further proceedings before the FTC. But ultimately, the case would be reviewed by the FTC for a final decision. If the judge rules against Intel and the company appeals, that could take the case to the middle of 2011.

Ultimately, Feinstein believes that Intel's actions have deprived the marketplace of the vigorous competition it needs, affecting innovation, prices, and consumer choice. Despite the gains in the microprocessor market, Feinstein said he believes it's hard to know what the market might have done over the past 10 years had it not been for Intel's conduct.

Updated December 18, 5:45 a.m. PST with response from Intel