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Microsoft Corp. said Wednesday it has waived its right to a hearing before European regulators in hopes of speeding resolution of its antitrust woes in Europe as well as the United States. The procedural move does not mean an automatic start to settlement talks with the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm. But it could hurry the process along by skipping over what might have been a contentious faceoff originally set for Dec. 20-21. “Rather than focus our energies on an oral hearing, we’d rather put our energies on continuing our discussions with the commission to resolve the issues of concern for them,” Microsoft spokeswoman Tiffany Steckler said in Paris. “When they would like to move into discussions with us, we’re ready and available.” A spokeswoman for the commission’s antitrust office, Amelia Torres, declined to comment on whether the case would now move faster. “If Microsoft doesn’t want a hearing, we’ll just continue with the investigation,” she said, adding that a decision was still expected early next year. Some antitrust lawyers in Brussels were skeptical about Microsoft’s move because the complainants in the case — mainly Microsoft competitors — still have a right to be heard under EU rules and could demand a hearing on their own. “If anything, this prolongs it,” said Thomas Mueller of Wilmer, Cutler and Pickering in Washington, D.C. “It’s probably more efficient to pack them all into a couple days and let them have their say.” The move to hasten an end to the three-year EU probe follows two big settlement deals in the United States, one with the federal government and nine of the 18 states that sued the company, and another to resolve consumer class-action lawsuits. In Washington, D.C., the Senate Judiciary Committee plans to question the Justice Department and state attorneys general over the decision by the Bush administration and nine states to settle the antitrust case. The former Republican chairman of the Senate committee, Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has been among Microsoft’s toughest critics in Congress. The Senate hearing is tenatively set for Dec. 12, committee spokesman David Carle said. That is the same day the trial judge, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, has instructed Microsoft to be ready to recommend which sanctions the court should impose beyond the penalties already included within the negotiated settlement. Nine other states, led by Iowa, California and Connecticut, have rejected the settlement as inadequate and decided to press forward with the case. The judge ordered those states to propose sanctions against Microsoft on Dec. 7. It was not immediately clear whether the Judiciary Committee, now headed by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., will seek testimony directly from Charles James, the assistant U.S. attorney general for antitrust, or which state attorneys general might be invited to testify. It also wasn’t clear whether Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer will testify. EU Competition Commissioner Mario Monti has stressed that despite some overlap, his investigation is separate from the U.S. case. In its “statement of objections” last August, the EU charged that Microsoft may be violating antitrust laws by bundling its Media Player into its Windows operating system, giving it an unfair advantage over competing products that also play online music and video. The EU also charged Microsoft with trying to extend its dominance into the market for servers that tie desktop computers together by illegally withholding key information that rivals like Sun Microsystems need for their products to work well with Windows. Some U.S. states have refused to join the settlement hammered out by the Bush administration partly over that same issue of “interoperability.” Microsoft spokeswoman Steckler said the company’s written reply to the commission, submitted Nov. 15, answered the concerns. She declined to elaborate. Torres said the EU’s merger task force is still reviewing Microsoft’s response. She also noted that although an oral hearing is “primarily” for the defendant, competitors who brought the initial complaint also have a right to be heard and may still request a hearing. She declined to speculate on whether Microsoft could be forced to participate if one is requested by a competitor like Sun, saying that would be up to the EU official who runs the hearing. A source familiar with Sun’s legal strategy said it was too early to say what it would do. Shares of Microsoft were up 2 cents to $63.76 in trading on the Nasdaq Stock Market. Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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