EU consumer chief eschews another bite at Apple

STRASBOURG, France, March 13 Tue Mar 13, 2007 1:05pm EDT

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STRASBOURG, France, March 13 (Reuters) - The European Union's consumer chief soft-pedalled her views on Apple Inc (AAPL.O) on Tuesday, backing off the line that its iTunes online music store must become more compatible with other formats.

Meglena Kuneva told a news conference there was no reason to talk about legal action against the U.S. computer and technology company and that she merely wanted to raise questions.

"I would like, really, to start this debate. What is best to develop this market and to have more consumers enjoying this really very important, very modern way of downloading and enjoying the music?" she said of Apple's iTunes.

In this week's edition of the German magazine Focus, Kuneva had been quoted as saying: "Do you think it's fine that a CD plays in all CD players but that an iTunes song only plays in an iPod? I don't. Something has to change."

She stopped short of repeating that on Tuesday.

"Somebody drew the comparison with Microsoft. No, this is not the case because the share of the market of Apple is really not a big one so there is not any reason to talk about infringement," Kuneva said.

The Commission found in 2004 that U.S. software giant Microsoft (MSFT.O) abused its dominance in the PC operating system market, fined it nearly 500 million euros ($659 million) and ordered the company to change its business practices.

Kuneva said she worked closely with Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes, whose department has found no reason to pursue Apple.

Kroes' department has said there were no problems with Apple's use of digital rights technology.

By contrast, critics say Apple limits consumers' free use of songs bought on iTunes, including the ability to copy and transfer songs to other users and other MP3 devices besides Apple's iPod music player.

Consumer agencies in two European countries have gone after Apple.

Norway, a European country not in the EU, announced in January that the computer and software company must liberalise its music download system by Oct. 1 or face legal action.

Pressure on Apple has been building, with consumer rights organisations from Germany, France, Finland and Norway recently agreeing a joint position in their battles against iTunes.

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