October 24, 2018

New York AG Files Antitrust Suit Against Intel

Yesterday, New York’s state Attorney General filed what could turn out to be a major antitrust suit against Intel. The suit accuses Intel of taking illegal steps to exclude a competitor, AMD, from the market.

All we have so far is the NYAG’s complaint, which tells one side of the case. Intel will have ample opportunity to respond, and the NYAG will ultimately have the burden of backing up its allegations with proof — so caution is in order at this point. Still, the complaint lays out the shape of the NYAG’s case.

The case concerns the market for x86-compatible microprocessors, which are the “brains” of most personal computers. Intel dominates this market but a rival company, AMD, has long been trying to build market share. The complaint offers a long narrative of Intel’s (and AMD’s) relationships with major PC makers (“OEMs”, in the jargon) such as Dell, HP, and IBM — the customers who buy x86 processors from Intel and AMD.

The crux of the case is the allegation that Intel paid OEMs to not buy from AMD. This is reminiscent of one aspect of the big Microsoft antitrust case of 1998, in which one of the DOJ’s claims was that Microsoft had paid people not to do business with Netscape.

I’ll leave it to the experts to debate the economic niceties, but as I understand it there is a distinction between paying someone to buy more of your product (e.g. giving a volume discount) as opposed to paying someone to buy less of your rival’s product. The former is generally fine, but if you have monopoly power the latter is suspect.

As the NYAG tells it, Intel tried to pretend the payments were for something else, but the participants knew what was really going on: that the payments would stop if an OEM started buying more from AMD. The evidence on this point could turn out to be important. Does the NYAG have “smoking gun” emails in which Intel made this explicit? Does the evidence show that OEMs understood the arrangement as the NYAG claims? I assume there’s a huge trove of email evidence that both sides will be digesting.

It will be interesting to watch this case develop. Thanks to tools like RECAP, many of the case documents will be available to the public. Stay tuned for more improvements to RECAP that will provide even better access.