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Twelve years after Intel was fined $1.2bn for unfairly running over rivals, an EU court says: No need to pay

Ah, y'know what, maybe those rebates for not using AMD chips weren't so anti-competitive after all, eh?

Intel Corporation no longer has to pay a €1.06bn ($1.2bn, £890m) fine imposed by the European Commission (EC) in 2009 for abusing its dominance of the chip market.

On Wednesday, the General Court of the European Union annulled the EC antitrust penalty [PDF] after previously upholding it in 2014 [PDF]. 

After rival AMD complained in 2000 and again in 2003 that Intel was engaging in anti-competitive conduct by offering its hardware partners rebates for using Intel's x86 chips, an EC antitrust investigation that got underway in 2004 and concluded in 2009 with a €1.06 billion penalty against Chipzilla.

The EC at the time found Intel's conduct between October 2002 and December 2007 to be anti-competitive.

"The evidence gathered by the Commission led to the conclusion that Intel's conditional rebates and payments induced the loyalty of key OEMs and of a major retailer, the effects of which were complementary in that they significantly diminished competitors' ability to compete on the merits of their x86 CPUs," the EC said in its 2009 decision. "Intel's anti-competitive conduct thereby resulted in a reduction of consumer choice and in lower incentives to innovate."

Intel appealed in 2012, calling the EC evidence inadequate and the legal analysis "hopelessly and irretrievably defective." 

In 2014, Intel's appeal failed when the General Court affirmed the EC arguments and upheld the fine. So Intel appealed again, this time to Europe's top court on matters of law, the European Court of Justice, which sent the case back to the General Court for reconsideration in 2017 [PDF].

Finally, in 2022, the General Court has come around to Intel's way of seeing things.

In its decision, the General Court said, "...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, anti-competitive effects…"

Intel, now with $1.2bn more pocket change than it had yesterday, expressed satisfaction with its reversal of fortune.

"We welcome today's ruling by the General Court as we have always believed that our actions regarding rebates were lawful and did not harm competition," a company spokesperson told The Register in an emailed statement. "The semiconductor industry has never been more competitive than it is today and we look forward to continuing to invest and grow in Europe."

The EC can appeal the ruling to the European Court of Justice on matters of law.

The ruling suggests that EU trustbusters won't be able to constrain corporate behavior if alleged misconduct fails to fit within the limited definition of competitive abuse under EU law (Article 102 TFEU). According to the Associated Press, EC VP Margrethe Vestager said at a press briefing in Brussels that the EC needs more time to consider what comes next.

Even if the fine is reinstated Intel's not in the poor house. On Wednesday it reported its fourth-quarter and full-year 2021 financial results, showing a profit for 2021 of $20bn and revenues of $79bn, all while paying a tax rate of 8.5 per cent. ®

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