Intel wins latest round with EU

Intel Corp.’s fight to overturn a record 1.06 billion-euro ($1.17 billion) European Union antitrust fine received a boost from an adviser to the bloc’s top court in a case that could have ramifications for a growing list of disputes involving U.S. tech giants from Google to Apple Inc.

Bloomberg’s Stephanie Bodoni and Aofie White report that according to advocate General Nils Wahl of the EU Court of Justice, Intel’s appeal should be re-examined by a lower court, which blundered by ruling against the company’s system of rebates for PC makers using its chips. The top court will decide whether to back his views in a ruling expected within about six months.

“If the court follows, this could be the most important ruling of the past 25 years because it’s the complete destruction of the judgment of the General Court but also of the European Commission’s position,” said Damien Geradin, a lawyer at EDGE Legal in Brussels.

The lower tribunal was wrong to single out “exclusivity rebates” paid to customers who bought most or all of their chips from Intel, he said. The General Court’s analysis failed to show that the rebates harmed competition. The commission in Brussels and Intel declined to comment.

A victory for Intel would throw the spotlight on EU antitrust regulators facing a court clash with Ireland and Apple over the fairness of a probe that culminated in the iPhone maker’s 13 billion-euro tax bill. The Intel ruling may also affect the EU’s handling of probes into Google and Qualcomm Inc. that could ultimately lead to fines.

Bloomberg reports that Intel’s 2009 antitrust fine was the EU’s biggest, more than double the 497 million-euro penalty against Microsoft Corp. in 2004. It represented about 4 percent of Intel’s $37.6 billion in sales in 2008, below the maximum penalty of 10 percent of yearly sales regulators can impose.

In light of “the errors committed” by the General Court, Wahl said a final ruling by the top tribunal wasn’t possible at this stage. “That is because a decision on the merits hinges upon the examination of all the circumstances of the case” and of “the actual or potential effect of Intel’s conduct on competition” in the EU.

Given this involves a revision of the facts in the case, it will have to be sent back to the lower EU court, he said. The EU’s top court can only analyze points of law.

If Intel ultimately prevails, it would be the commission’s first defeat in a case concerning so-called abuse of dominance by a company for “very many years,” said Trevor Soames, a competition lawyer in Brussels. “The line of success on the part of the commission will be stopped in its tracks.”