Potential case against Microsoft over AV weak, says expert

Competitors would have little chance in a lawsuit challenging Security Essentials, lawyer says

Security companies miffed at Microsoft for distributing antivirus software through a Windows' update service should forget about calling in the lawyers, an antitrust lawyer said today.

"It would be a longshot at best," said Hillard Sterling, of chances rivals could prevail in a civil suit based on antitrust charges. "It would be difficult if not impossible to show any anticompetitive impact," added Sterling, a partner with the Chicago-based law firm of Freeborn & Peters.

Sterling said Trend hasn't a legal leg to stand on.

"The [Security Essentials] download is optional, so there's no barrier to competition here," he said. "Other security products are readily available from a multitude of channels."

Nor does Trend Micro's "market leverage" argument hold water, Sterling continued. "Microsoft may, in fact, have competitive leverage, but that's a far cry form an antitrust violation," he said. "Antitrust laws are designed to protect consumers, not competitors."

Even in the European Union, where Microsoft has faced much more aggressive antitrust regulators, Sterling doubted that antivirus rivals could make a case. "The EU has taken a stronger stand against Microsoft's conduct, but unlike the browser case, there doesn't appear to be any real barrier to competition here," he said.

Sterling was referring to the browser ballot screen that EU Windows users faced earlier this year that displayed alternatives to Internet Explorer -- the browser bundled with Microsoft's operating system -- and asked customers to choose which to install as their default. That ballot screen was mandated by a 2009 agreement that Microsoft reached with government regulators.

Microsoft's decision to offer Security Essentials doesn't prevent other companies, including Trend Micro, from getting their products onto PCs, said Sterling. "Perhaps a competitor could create a case if Microsoft was barring OEMs from installing others' security software on new PCs," he said. "But they're not."

Trend Micro isn't the only rival unhappy with Microsoft about Security Essentials' new distribution channel. Panda Security took its shots Monday.

"If [Microsoft's] objective is truly to protect users from malware, then why doesn't Microsoft allow [Security Essentials] to install in pirated copies of Windows?" asked Luis Corrons, the director of Panda's research lab, in a Monday post to a company blog . "Even Microsoft itself acknowledges that malware infections are more prevalent in illegal copies of Windows." As Corrons noted, Microsoft blocks users running counterfeit copies of Windows from installing Security Essentials. And the company has explained some countries' high PC infection rates by claiming that users running bogus Windows are leery of patching their systems.

"While Microsoft wants us to think it is doing this out of the goodness of their hearts, the reality is that the measure will have little impact as millions and millions of unlicensed Windows PCs will continue spreading viruses and infecting the rest of us," argued Corrons.

Corrons also knocked Security Essentials' quality -- a common tactic by rival antivirus vendors -- and called on Microsoft to make Windows more secure, not waste its time distributing security software.

"Microsoft's security resources should work on making the OS more secure, not just putting a Band-Aid on it," Corrons said. "Microsoft should make a serious development effort to secure the OS from the ground up, and not limit the security tools currently available to its users."

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