Intel has won a victory of sorts in its long-running fight against a €1.06 billion ($1.26 billion) antitrust fine that was levied against it by the European Commission eight years ago.
The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), the EU’s top court, on Wednesday set aside the 2014 ruling of the General Court, which upheld the 2009 fine, on the basis that the General Court had made a legal error. (Somewhat confusingly, the General Court is a lower court within the CJEU—it was the upper court within that institution that made Wednesday’s ruling.)
This does not mean Intel is off the hook—rather, it means the General Court needs to examine Intel’s legal arguments more closely than it did before, potentially giving Intel a chance to have the fine annulled or reduced.
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“We welcome today’s landmark ruling,” Intel general counsel Steven Rodgers said. “While this case concerns events that happened more than a decade ago, we have always believed that our actions were lawful and did not harm competition. We look forward to the next step in this process, in what is a respectful disagreement between Intel and the EC’s competition regulators.”
The European Commission’s competition department, at the time headed up by commissioner Neelie Kroes, fined Intel for abusing its dominant position in the x86 microprocessor market between 2002 and 2007.
It found that Intel had given wholly or partially hidden rebates to PC manufacturers such as Dell and Lenovo for using its chips rather than those of rival AMD, and that Intel had also directly paid computer manufacturers to scrap or delay the launch of products using non-Intel chips. Intel had also paid a major electronics retail group, Germany’s Media Saturn Holding, to only stock PCs with Intel inside.
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Intel appealed to the General Court, which specifically deals with complaints against other EU institutions, on the basis that the fine was excessive and should be reduced or annulled. The court turned it down, arguing that the exclusivity rebates were by nature “incompatible with the objective of undistorted competition within the common market.”
This, it said, meant the Commission wasn’t obliged to examine whether the payments actually did reduce competition—even though the Commission had conducted an in-depth examination of this issue. The General Court also said the fine was not disproportionate, amounting to 4.15% of Intel’s annual revenues when the maximum fine would have been 10%.
On Wednesday, the CJEU said the General Court had failed to properly examine the issue of whether the rebates did actually stifle competition.
“The Court refers the case back to the General Court so that it may examine, in the light of the arguments put forward by Intel, whether the rebates at issue are capable of restricting competition,” the court said in a statement.
In issuing this ruling, the CJEU’s judges aligned themselves with the opinion of the court’s top legal advisor, advocate general Nils Wahl. The court usually goes with what its advocates general say, though not always.