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Intel wins historic $1.2 billion appeal over antitrust fine

January 26, 2022, 12:07 PM UTC

Intel has won its 13-year battle to overturn a massive antitrust fine from the European Union.

In 2009, the European Commission levied what was at the time a record-breaking antitrust fine of €1.06 billion ($1.45 billion then; $1.2 billion now) over Intel’s practice of giving secret or partially hidden rebates to PC makers such as Dell and HP, and electronics retailers such as Germany’s Media-Saturn Holding, in exchange for their not offering products using processors from rival chipmaker AMD.

The EU’s General Court annulled the fine Wednesday morning, because the Commission had made legal errors—the central one being that it assumed the “fidelity rebates” were inherently capable of restricting competition, whereas it should have explained how each rebate did so in reality.

The General Court, which primarily deals with appeals against Commission decisions, apparently made the same mistake itself when it dismissed Intel’s appeal in 2014. Intel then took its case up to the European Court of Justice, the EU’s highest legal authority, which in 2017 slapped down the lower chamber (confusingly, the courts together represent the “Court of Justice of the EU”) and told it to examine Intel’s argument more closely.

“The analysis carried out by the Commission is incomplete and, in any event, does not make it possible to establish to the requisite legal standard that the rebates at issue were capable of having, or were likely to have, anticompetitive effects, which is why the General Court annuls the decision,” the General Court said in a Wednesday statement.

It should be noted that the legal errors were not made by the team of current Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, but by the team of her predecessor’s predecessor, Neelie Kroes. However, it is still arguably a blow for the current Commission, as it’s not the first time the courts have overturned its competition decisions recently. In 2020, the General Court overturned a $15 billion decision against Apple—though that wasn’t a fine, but rather a back-tax bill that the iPhone maker supposedly owed to Ireland.

“The Commission will carefully study the judgment and reflect on possible next steps,” Vestager’s directorate said in a Wednesday statement.

Intel had not responded to a request for comment at the time of writing. Its $1.2 billion has likely been sitting in escrow for the past 13 years, as is customary during the appeal process.

Back in 2009, the sum was a record-breaker for EU antitrust fines, representing around a fifth of Intel’s cash and liquid assets. It was certainly a great deal larger than the $25 million fine South Korea levied on Intel for similar infractions, and more comparable with the $1.25 billion that Intel agreed to pay AMD in a 2009 U.S. settlement.

However, since then the EU’s antitrust fines have gotten even beefier, with Google having been ordered to pay over $9 billion in a series of three fines between 2017 and 2019. Google in November lost the first of its appeals against those penalties at the General Court, but said last week that it, too, would be taking its case up to the Court of Justice.

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