Wouldn’t it be ridiculous if the government ordered McDonald’s sell Burger King’s products at all of its restaurants, simply because Burger King did not have as many locations? Wouldn’t you roll your eyes at this example of the government sticking its nose where it doesn’t belong? Doesn’t that seem like it would be unfairly punishing McDonald’s for having more restaurants than Burger King, and then add insult to injury by forcing the company to sell their competition’s products?

Welcome to the insane world of the European Union, which doesn’t seem to have anything better to do than make money by suing American corporations. Ever since Microsoft’s anti-trust suits in America, the EU has decided that instead of encouraging their own corporations to flourish and breed competition to the world’s most widely-used operating system, they will instead attempt to suck huge lawsuit-related profits out of Microsoft in order to allow the company to sell in Europe.

In this case, the “hamburger” in question is Internet Explorer, every tech’s favorite punching bag. Now, I’m no real fan of Internet Explorer either; I think a company like Microsoft with all of its power and money should be able to make a browser that’s much more secure and functional, but that’s beside the point here. Microsoft made the operating system, which includes certain pre-built programs: it comes with a calculator, text editors, picture and video viewers, and of course an internet browser.

The EU objects to the inclusion of this software. In previous years with Windows XP and Windows Vista, the software targeted was Windows Media Player. Even more ridiculous, the EU demanded that Microsoft release the source code for its server operating system so that competitors would be able to get full Windows Server functionality, without paying for Windows Server. As the linked article points out, these two stipulations also included a fine of 800 million USD, the largest the EU had ever leveraged. After the EU declared the Microsoft had not met their expectations, they started fining the corporation 1.5 million USD per day until they “complied.”

It’s not over yet. The EU continuously rates Microsoft’s compliance as unacceptable, and last year handed out a ruling of almost 1.5 billion USD to the American company as punishment for “foot-dragging.”

Microsoft has since released versions of XP and Vista in what they refer to as the “N” series, which removes Windows Media Player. However, the EU is not content with this, and in their search for new and more lucrative ways to loot American intellectual property, have their sights set on the upcoming Windows 7. Microsoft perhaps sensed this, and even as the EU hemmed and hawwed about telling Microsoft to take out their long-included Internet Explorer, Microsoft proudly whipped off the cover from their new baby (which has been extremely well-reviewed by dozens of sources) which pretty much allows for everything in the OS to be modular – install it when you want, uninstall it when you want, including of course Internet Explorer. They even offered to make a version for the EU that didn’t have the browser built into it. I’m sure they felt they had all their bases covered.

The EU was disappointed, as this meant there would be no lawsuit for them to leech off of. So, they came up with a proposal that they felt sure Microsoft would never go along with (= another lawsuit), which is to force Microsoft to offer a “ballot box” option that would appear the first time a Windows 7 computer is turned on. This “ballot box” would ask customers what browser they want to use, and then upon the selection, that browser would be installed and made the default. Basically, they told Microsoft to sell their competitors’ software, for free.

The tech world thought that Microsoft would never go for it. But amazingly, Microsoft released a statement of [weary] acceptance, that they would include a ballot of browsers. Of course, now the next question is – who will decide which browsers are featured in this ballot? Just like a presidential election, just because you want to be on the ballot doesn’t mean you get it. Of course big names like Opera and Firefox will be on there, and most likely Apple’s Safari too (Microsoft’s biggest competitor in general) and even the newcomer to the browser market, Google Chrome. But will there be others, and if so who will choose them? Will Microsoft choose, or will the EU?

Does this seem fair to you that Microsoft should have to jump through these hoops in order for their product to be sold in Europe? Does it seem like the EU is honestly trying to encourage growth of independent developers and shrink Microsoft’s monopoly, or do they just want want to dig cash out of Microsoft’s pockets which in turn will force the giant developer to turn its costs onto us, the hapless American consumers that will essentially be subsidizing the EU’s greed?

I’m more than a little biased here. All of the hot air that the EU is blowing about compatibility would be just fine if not for the glaring hole in their argument about needing to fight the giant:

They could use Linux.

This is 2009, and an entirely open-source alternative exists to Microsoft’s products, one that can be modified to the EU’s heart’s content. They can put in and take out whatever they want, and no one will mind – that’s freedom for you. They can run servers on it (and not need Microsoft’s precious closed-source code) and install hundreds of media players on it (VLC, MPlayer, Gom, Totem, but ironically not Windows Media Player), or web browsers.

The EU might then complain that the quality of these alternatives is “not on par with Microsoft offerings”, to which I offer: “tough noogies.” If you want to see competition that can compete with the Microsoft giant, it’s got to be funded somehow. Linux is free, and open source, and made of developers which more often than not are doing this in their spare time. The EU could put its new-found Microsoft money where its mouth is and fund the Linux community, who would more than welcome the influx of development cash. That would be a totally reasonable, and even noble thing for the EU to do – the world needs more open-source developers, but they’ve got families to feed and they can only do so much.

But the EU is completely wrong in its demand that Microsoft provide its competitors products, free of charge. The tech world applauded Microsoft’s announcements from several months ago that it was making all of its components modular, and even before that it wasn’t like Microsoft ever prevented you from installing a competing browser. That was part of what made Microsoft so easy for people to work with: anyone could make software for it that would replace or duplicate Windows’ functionality, and the Windows OS would allow it (unlike, say, the iPhone’s OS which prohibits duplication of function that would compete with Apple’s own programs).

In closing: I’m all for government regulation if it makes sense. There are many businesses out there, like the oil conglomerates (not enough oversight) and Halliburton/KBR (definitely not enough oversight) that need to have a government step in and control them. Microsoft definitely needs oversight too, don’t get me wrong. They are the largest software company in the world and millions of people depend on them either directly or indirectly for employment, either by directly working for them or writing software that runs on their operating system. But why should Microsoft have to sell their own competition?

Bottom line: The EU needs to keep its hands out of things it doesn’t understand, like technology, and not unreasonably ask corporations to give up trade secrets and design in order to sell in Europe. Frankly, if I were Microsoft’s CEO, I would say “okay, you go ahead and run XP and Vista, and we won’t sell in your country. We’ll see how your constituents feel about your request.” Within 6 months, the EU would be begging for forgiveness after their outraged member countries were pressured by their citizens to bring the latest and greatest across the Atlantic.

Or maybe they’d all turn to Linux, pour billions of euros into refining it and building on it, and turn it into a truly competitive replacement to Windows. Hmm. Maybe that’s why Microsoft was so quick to let the EU have its way.